GCI sent a repair ship, the Wave Venture, to Northern Chatham Strait to repair a damaged fiber optic cable, serving Sitk and Angoon. (Photo by Jorgen Eliason)

Missed connections were hard to avoid this Valentine’s Day (02-14-16) in Sitka and Angoon. The fiber optic cable serving both island communities is damaged, leaving customers with spotty to zero Internet, TV, and phone service.

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Installed in 2008, the cable runs 1,400 feet below the ocean’s surface. Picture a bundle of glass strands, thinner than a human hair, encased in plastic. And surrounding that is an armor of steel, made of 12-gauge strands.

“So all of that is about an inch and a half in diameter and it’s extremely heavy,” said David Morris, GCI’s Vice President.

GCI sent a repair ship from Victoria, British Columbia – the Wave Venture – to Chatham Straits to retrieve the cable and repair it. Cable crews are actively working to replace the damage, but have discovered more sections in need of repair.

Morris said, “There does appear to be another section of the cable that is compromised . It’s in Peril Strait, so once [crews] finish the repair in Chatham Strait they’ll move over to the second location and repair that.”

With the repair work underway, GCI has moved its customers to alternate systems, severely reducing Internet, cable TV, and phone service. GCI gave customers only a few days notice that this would happen, but Morris said the company couldn’t wait any longer to begin the repair work. “We’ve got no control of when the cable would completely degrade down to zero. So we made the decision that we needed to repair it as soon as possible before it completely catastrophically failed, giving no one any warning at all.”

As for the cause of the damage, a GCI press release blamed unusually strong currents and rugged terrain. But Morris says it’s too early to know what exactly is the culprit.

Meanwhile, landlubbers are waiting in suspense and staring at their loading bars. Simple text messages, local, and long distance calls still work. But the pace of web browsing is somewhere between dial-up and banana slug. So, forget about watching that Lady Gaga performance at the Grammy’s, texting pictures of your kids, or signing in to your online class. It’s not gonna happen.

Josh Houston was at an event with his friend Jasmine this weekend. He told KCAW, “People were saying, ‘Oh man, no Internet at home. We’ve been living like it’s the 1940s. We can’t even watch TV.’ And under my breath, I said to Jasmine, ‘Well I was at home laying tracks on Garage Band on my iPad, so it didn’t feel like the 1940s to me.’”

And the anachronism is true. All the hardware and software works, but anything sent across time and space – in the cloud or streamed- just isn’t working.

Sitkans who run small, or independent business, are particularly frustrated. “The lack of Internet has deeply affected my life,” said Emmett Williams, an independent filmmaker. He parked himself in a local coffee shop because his internet at home isn’t working at all.

Williams said that many of his clients are out of state. “Luckily, people find is cute and quirky that I live on this island in Alaska. So they’re like, ‘Oh this is so cute, no worries!’ So it’s fine, but only because there are no deadlines,” Williams said. “If I had a deadline, I would have to go to Juneau and stay there for a few days because I’m so dependent on the internet for my work.”

Williams also missed the latest episode of The Walking Dead, so if any of you Sitkans DVR’d it, please let him know what happened.

Williams: Even when I listen to KCAW, I do it online. And so, I’m going to buy a radio.
KCAW: Victory for terrestrial radio!

One other kicker to this whole situation? William’s isn’t even a GCI customer. He’s an ACS customer. But like many non GCI-customers in Sitka and Angoon, his service has also crawled to a slow. GCI says this is because of routing and roaming agreements between carriers.

Fellow Sitkan Beth McDonald said the loss of service, while initially frustrating, had one unexpected outcome. “Instead, I picked up a book and started reading it and I read seven chapters yesterday. I can’t pull myself away from the book too long and it’s not such a bad thing.”

GCI estimates the repair will be complete this Saturday (02-20-16) and that full service to phone, TV, and Internet will be restored at that time.

Local hospital operations and public safety agencies are being served through a dedicated bypass system.

Once the repairs are made, Morris said customers won’t be charged for loss of service and will be notified of the credit process. And in the meantime, those in Sitka and Angoon have little choice but to look less at their screens.

Sitka and Angoon customers can check for the latest updates on the GCI Facebook page. In addition, Sitka customers may call 907-747-3535 for local updates.