Earth Stations Bring an End to White Alice.

Published: 2020-05-26 04:36:04
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The end of an era some said. Others said it was the timely death of a dinosaur. By any definition, it was the end of White Alice. Last January 15, saw the deactivation of the only remaining White Alice link carrying public telecommunications traffic. With their huge steel antenna clusters looking like 100-ton drive-in movie screens atop mountains from Barter Island to Shemya and Ketchikan, the White Alice sites stood in their day as unmistakable landmarks . . . as monuments to the challenge of telecommunications in Alaska. But time has a way of turning even high tech monuments into tired relics out of step with modern technology. Using the timely discovery that radio transmissions could be bounced off the earth’s atmosphere from one site to another beyond the horizon, White Alice used massive amounts of power to blast a signal skyward–process known as tropospheric scatter. A small fraction of the signal would bounce off the troposphere and be received by another station downline. It wasn’t too efficient by today’s standards, but it was the best communications technology available in the 1950s. By the latter half of that decade, thousands of construction workers, electricians, pilots, military and support personnel were in Alaska building this new link for the military. Like earlier telegraph and open-wire communications in the state, White Alice would carry civilian and military transmissions. The name for the project, White Alice, is credited to a military study group in Washington, DC. Searching for a classified code name for the system, the group turned Alaska Integrated Communications Enterprises into Alice,” and White” was chosen because they believed it descriptive of the area . . . and they needed two words for the name. The group was going to call it Alice White, but someone discovered a potential conflict with an actress of that name. White Alice was born. Sites Self-Contained White Alice sites were self-contained outposts on some of the most rugged and spectacular real estate in Alaska. Though some stations varied slightly in their configuration and radio hardware, all were staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by several technicians, mechanics and housekeepers. The staff was housed in an on-site dormitory. The lifeline of most sites was an airstrip that allowed a steady stream of supplies and a way back to civilization. White Alice remained the backbone of long-line communications for more than ten years and eventually expanded to some 60 sites including the bit tropospheric scatter transmitters and smaller microwave stations. In 1974, under an agreement with the Air Force which owned White Alice, Alascom took over the operation and maintenance of the segment between Palmer and Ketchikan with circuits leased back to the military. Two years later Alascom assumed control of the rest of the White Alice system from the Air Force. System Operated at Great Cost White Alice was proving to be an expensive proposition. With all those diesel generators humming along providing power for the inefficient radio technology, it is estimated that enough electricity was generated each day to power 25,000 homes. Satellite communications technology was emerging in Alaska as the heir apparent to the aging White Alice system. By 1975, the state legislature appropriated $5 million for construction of small satellite earth stations in 120 villages with a permanent population of 25 or more. Today Alascom has more than 160 earth stations scattered across Alaska providing a level of telecommunications never dreamed during White Alice days. Earth Stations Take Over Appropriately, it was the construction of a satellite earth station that put into retirement the last White Alice site at Boswell Bay on Hinchbrook Island is Prince William Sound. Boswell Bay formed the middle link in a communications path anchored at either end by White Alice sites at Neklasson lake near Palmer and Middleton Island in the Gulf of Alaska. With the new satellite link, and the rerouting of some marine radio and Coast Guard links, the White Alice shot” to Neklasson Lake was no longer needed; all three remaining tropo stations at Neklasson Lake, Boswell Bay and Middleton Island could be deactivated. With members of the television and print media present for a simple ceremony, Alascom’s Tim Pettis threw a switch causing the dials on the Boswell Bay transmitter to drop rather unceremoniously dead for the first time since the 1950s. Pettis had the distinction of idling not only those giant transmitters, but of bringing the White Alice era to an end.

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