TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: The Alascom Story

The Alascom Story

TELECOM Digest Editor (
Sun, 27 May 2007 20:40:12 EDT

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: From our archives, fifteen years ago,
this report, originally from Fidnonet (remember that network!) dealing
with Alaska's telephone service in those days ... written by Don
Kimberlin, also a regular Digest contributor in those days. PAT]

Date: Sun, 05 Apr 92 10:06:31 CST
From: (Mike Riddle)
Subject: The Alascom Story

From the Fidonet FCC echo:
Originally posted: 02 Apr 92 23:45:00
Originally from: Don Kimberlin

Here's some info for those who get propagandized about how "the phone
company" or "AT&T" is the only telecommunications entity in the world
that accomplishes anything. The following was received here today
from Alascom, the original "interstate" and "international" common
carrier for Alaska, that, in addition to a pretty illustrious history,
has today become one of the world's most called-upon "fast response"
providers of transportable satellite stations for public
communications, even down to being the real communications earth
station provider during Desert Storm, operating quietly behind the
scenes while AT&T and MCI beat their breasts about "providing the
troops with phones from Saudi Arabia":


"From telegraph wires strung across vast stretches of
wilderness to the emergence of satellites, fiber optics and
solid-state digital technology, telecommunications in Alaska have made
a quantum leap in a relatively brief span of time.

"What is now Alascom began as the Washington-Alaska Military
Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), a "talking wire" strung overland
across Alaska's wilderness and linked to a submarine telegraph cable
connecting Seattle with Juneau, Sitka and Valdez.

"Congress passed the act that created WAMCATS in 1900 in order
to open communication channels between Alaska's isolated military
outposts and the rest of the nation. A provision in the bill set the
conditions for the eventual foundation of a civilian system. That
year the first operational telegraph link was completed, with 25 miles
of line (part of a $450,000 plan by the Army Signal Corps) strung from
Nome Military headquarters to the Port Safety outpost.

"Three years later, land lines connected western Alaska,
Prince William Sound, the Interior and Southeast. An unsuccessful
underwater telegraph cable had been laid in 1900 across Norton Sound
from Port Safety to Fort Saint Michael. This early effort was ripped
apart by ice blocks, but replaced in 1903 with a new wireless system.
The Norton Sound radio link was the world's first application of a
permanent radio-telegraph link for public communications, earning it a
place in telecommunications history.

"By 1905, 1500 miles of land lines, 2,000 miles of submarine
cable and 107 miles of wireless links comprised WAMCATS' unique and
growing network.

"With the discovery of gold and subsequent law enforcement
problems at this early part of the century, WAMCATS' telegraph linked
San Francisco and Washington military headquarters with their
far-flung Alaskan outposts.

"The military allowed commercial and non-military traffic on
the system, providing it did not interfere with military operations.
The Alaska Railroad, completed in 1923, pushed development from the
port of Seward through Anchorage and into the Interior. Eventual
increase in commercial traffic led to a telegraph link with Ketchikan
and established that community as the main relay point between Seattle
and Seward.

"By 1916, half of WAMCATS' land line were abandoned in favor
of wireless stations, which reduced costs and increased communications
reliability in the harsh climates that made maintaining wire lines so
difficult. For the next two decades, little growth was experienced as
Alaska withdrew from the limelight of the post-goldrush era.

"During the 1930's, submarine cables, supplemented by radio
links, slowly replaced the `talking wire'. To reflect the changing
technology, Congress renamed WAMCATS as the Alaska Communications
System (ACS) in 1936.

"With the outbreak of World War II, Alaska's geographic
importance became evident to the nation`s leaders and substantial
activity in communications began once again. The Alaska Highway
project was pushing forward and communications with the outside world
were vital to the war effort.

"Communications links with the Lower 48 were upgraded in the
mid-1950's when AT&T laid a submarine telephone cable between
Ketchikan and Port Angeles, Washington.

"When Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, Western Electric
had been operating the strategic White Alice Communications System
(WACS) for the government. WACS provided circuits for remote military
installations and to villages that had been beyond reach of the Alaska
Communications System.

"WACS provided the technology that could relay voice
communications over high mountain ranges. This system functioned by
bouncing strong radio signals off the Earth's troposphere, a costly
process due to the huge amounts of power required to produce
sufficiently strong signals at a distance. Used in conjunction with
the Distant Early Warning line of radars (DEW line), White Alice sites
featured ten-story-high troposcatter antennas, some of which are still
standing as silent monuments to a bygone technology.

"Meanwhile, RCA had established itself in the state by winning
contracts to supply personnel and maintenance to scattered armed
forces communications sites. As private enterprise became more
involved in Alaskan communications, the Federal government decided to
stop providing communications to the commercial and private sectors.

"In 1969, Congress passed the Alaska Communications Disposal
Act. Among interested bidders to purchase the Alaska Communications
System were General Telephone, Continental Telephone and RCA Global
Communications. RCA was the successful bidder at a price of $28.5
million in cash and a pledge to immediately invest an additional $30
million for badly needed improvements to the then seriously overtaxed
and outdated ACS.

"RCA had purchased rights to provide the state's commercial
traffic with a network including toll centers at Anchorage, Fairbanks,
Juneau and Ketchikan; a network of marine radio stations, a submarine
cable terminating in Southwest and a scattering of high-frequency (HF)
radio communications sites.

"Concurrent with the purchase of ACS, RCA's pioneering
satellite technology in long distance communications made its debut on
the international scene.

"RCA renamed its Alaska operating unit Alascom, and in 1973
purchased the Bartlett Earth Station, then the only one in Alaska and
Alaska's sole satellite link with the outside world. Shortly
thereafter, Alascom constructed its own first satellite station at
Lena Point, near Juneau, bringing Alaska into the era of modern
satellite technology.

"The first functional domestic satellite system in the nation
appeared later that year when Alascom began using the Canadian Anik II
satellite on a regular basis. Howard Hawkins, the forward-thinking
president of RCA Alascom's parent company, RCA Communications, pushed
full speed ahead on plans to construct earth stations across Alaska on
a substantial scale.

"By 1974 Alascom had constructed earth stations at Prudhoe
Bay, Nome, Bethel and Valdez. The same year, RCA launched its own
satellites, SATCOM 1 and 2, and all of Alascom's satellite traffic was
switched to the new "birds."

"In July 1976 RCA Alascom entered into an agreement with the
Department of the Air Force to lease most of the military's antiquated
White Alice facilities and replace them with 22 modern satellite earth

"Replacement of the military's aging communications system was
largely completed by Alascom in the late 1970's; the earth stations
built to replace the White Alice system required construction in
formidable places. For example, a year of pre-planning was needed to
get equipment to Shemya in the Aleutian Islands on the once-a-year
supply barge.

"In the late 1970's, the federal government was beginning to
look at reshaping the domestic telecommunications industry to foster
competition. The giant RCA Global Communications, which also operated
worldwide communications of many sorts, was ordered by the FCC to
divest itself of domestic satellite communications -- of which RCA
Alascom was a foremost part. RCA American Communications (RCA
Americom) was formed as a totally independent corporation and given
the responsibility for handling all domestic satellite business of

"In June, 1979, RCA Alascom was purchased by Pacific Power and
Light Company (now PacifiCorp) of Portland, Oregon. The purchase
price was $200 million cash and taking over $90 million of Alascom's
long term debt.

"Meanwhile, Alascom had expanded its service by constructing
more than 200 earth stations and serving even the smallest rural
communities in the state. Company pride and commitment to Alaska was
never more evident than on October 27, 1982, when Alascom launched its
own satellite -- Aurora I -- the only satellite of its kind and
devoted exclusively to use by a single state -- Alaska.

"Along with the new `bird,' Alascom's plant improvements had
vastly upgraded its satellite and terrestrial links within the state
and to interstate points. A new multipurpose building in Anchorage
was constructed on Government Hill, consolidating all local Alascom
components in one complex.

"Always forging ahead with new technology, Alascom established
the first satellite communications for offshore oil rigs in the
mid-1980's, developing a gyro-stablized satellite antenna that
compensated for the pitch and roll of the drilling vessels.

"Live television, a given anywhere else in the United States,
arrived late in Alaska. Entertainment programs were a week or two
late arriving in Anchorage by film or tape. After showing in
Anchorage, the material was sent onward for even later showing in
Fairbanks and then Juneau. National news was taped off the air in
Seattle and put on the first available northbound plane. In most
cases, Walter Cronkite addressed his Alaskan audience a day later than
the Lower 48.

"Today, live programming is beamed throughout Alaska using
Alascom's Aurora I, and events of interest to the world are beamed out
from Alaska; events like the visit of Pope John Paul, the rescue of
the trapped whales, and coverage of the Valdez oil spill all traveled
out via Alascom's Aurora I. The same Alascom satellite is used to
relay long distance learning to remote sites throughout the state.

"Presently, Alascom employs more than 700 people in Alaska and
operates more than 300 sites statewide with microwave and satellite
communications. Alascom also works under contract for several
companies that require specialized communications at remote mining and
oil drilling sites. Alascom also operates the state's marine radio
network and an aviation weather service for pilots.

"In the last few years, Alascom has become known throughout
the global telecommunications industry as the experts on rapid
deployment of transportable earth stations, delivering them to remote
sites by air freighter or helicopter and setting up operation within
hours. Alascom was called upon by the oil industry in Alaska to
provide remote communications from the tragic spill site in Prince
William Sound when the tanker Exxon Valdez lost its cargo in the
pristine Alaskan waters.

"In 1989, Alascom was called upon by the U.S. Navy to fly its
transportable earth station to Puerto Rico to re-establish
communications devastated by Hurricane Hugo on that Caribbean island.
The same year, Alascom transportable earth stations and personnel were
deployed to Panama in support of the U.S. forces in Operation Just

"One year later, as the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, Alascom was
once again thousands of miles from home providing satellite
communications support to our Armed Forces operating in the Saudi
theatre as part of Desert Shield, and then Desert Storm.

"On May 29, 1991, Alascom launched its second satellite --
Aurora II -- as a replacement for the aging Aurora I which was almost
out of station-keeping fuel after nine years of faithful service. The
new satellite, more sophisticated and powerful than its predecessor,
will continue to provide a variety of telecommunications services to
Alaska's growing population.

"More recently, Alascom entered the era of international
submarine fiber optic cables by linking its communications network
with a spur that runs off the North Pacific Cable that runs between
Portland, Oregon and Japan. The Alascom spur, which lands at Seward,
Alaska, proceeds underwater to a point 1,900 miles south, where the
transPacific portion of the cable is tapped, using methods like those
employed for joining multiple European nations on transAtlantic
cables. This connects Alaskans not only with the Lower 48 but also
directly with the Orient via the latest in digital fiber optics

"The story of Alascom has been the story of growth. In 1971,
when the company took its first few steps, Alaska's long distance
telephone traffic amounted to 5 million calls per year. Today,
Alascom handles in excess of 95 million calls annually and is doing so
at substantial rate reductions from jsut 20 years ago. Over that
short history, Alascom has lowered its interstate calling rates by 85%
while reducing intrastate calls by 25%. A call that cost $10.00 in
1971 today costs only $1.56.


"The years ahead are full of promise and excitement. As
Alaska enters the last decade of this century, plans are already being
laid for Alascom to enter the twenty-first century in the way WAMCATS
entered the twentieth century, full of dedication and committed to
serving its state and its people -- and now increasingly expanding
that scope to the world, wherever and whenever needed.

Origin: The Nebraska Inns of Court ( (1:285/27)

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