Three of GCI’s five new cell towers service Halibut Point Road, including the vicinity of the Old Sitka Dock. Only GCI customers can access the new network for the time being, but subscribers with other carriers will likely be accommodated.  “A lot of things can happen between now and cruise season,” says GCI’s Josh Edge. (Photo courtesy of Chris McGraw)

GCI turned on five new cell towers in Sitka just before New Years — at least a full week ahead of schedule.

The Alaska-based telecommunications company struck a deal with the Sitka Electric Department, which invested $300,000 installing the 60-foot towers. The towers resemble Sitka’s regular utility poles.

GCI will lease back the poles for $120,000 per year for the next twenty years, netting the Electric Department over $2 million in revenue over the life of the contract.

Right now, the new infrastructure only benefits GCI customers. But GCI spokesperson Josh Edge says that could change by summer.

Three of the new towers cover Halibut Point Road past the Old Sitka cruise ship dock. KCAW asked Edge if GCI had taken cruise passengers into consideration.

KCAW — Josh, what’s going to happen when a monster cruise ship is docked out there at Old Sitka? Can 5-6,000 cell phone customers arriving from outside of town monopolize the network that you’ve just invested in here?
Edge — Well, we’re anticipating it being substantially better than it has been here in past seasons, as we build out more infrastructure and have more cell sites, we’re better able to distribute the traffic through these sites, rather than having them overload the ones that we already had there. So, adding more towers should add capacity, and I think people will have a much better experience with their wireless service come this next cruise season.
KCAW — I’m assuming that most of the thousands of people who come in on cruise ships don’t even know about cruise ships or that it’s our Alaska-based telecommunications company, but obviously their cell phones are going to work on your network?
Edge — It could depend. Right now it’s set up to handle just GCI traffic. AT&T customers will not receive service over this network. They have their own infrastructure there in Sitka. A lot of things can happen between now and cruise season, but right now it is primarily set up to support GCI customers.

In addition to the lease-back deal that CGI made with Sitka in exchange for installation of the 5 poles, the new cell antennas — plus a 400-amp service on top of Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital — will all purchase power from Sitka’s Electric Department.