Surviving Alaska: Will My Cell Phone Work In Alaska?

Despite the misconception that Alaska is still in the stone age, we have excellent cell phone coverage!  There’s actually a cell phone war of sorts happening in Alaska.

cell phones work here

In the past, Alaska was dominated by smaller local providers such as ACS, GCI, and MTA just to name a few.  The larger carriers from the Lower 48 had roaming agreements with these local carriers.  For example, Verizon would use ACS towers in Alaska, and ACS would use Verizon towers in the Lower 48.

outline of alaska

 

In recent years, the big guys have been spending tons of money building their own cellular network in Alaska.  AT&T is the largest of the big guys to cover Alaska.  Recently Verizon stepped into the Alaska market and started building their network, they’re still using local towers outside of the populated areas.

To compete with the big guys invading from the Lower 48 the local companies have banded together to improve their services.  Last year, ACS and GCI started sharing towers and it was just announced in early 2015, GCI will take over the ACS wireless network.

When I say “excellent” you need to take a few things into consideration.

  • Alaska is huge:  We’ve all heard that Alaska is twice the size of Texas and covering every square mile isn’t possible yet.
  • Distance between towns:  It’s common to drive for hours between towns.  Be thankful for the coverage you have between towns.
  • Extreme terrain:  The mountains are huge and valleys are long.
  • Logistics:  There are only 12,000 miles of paved roads in Alaska, that is .005% of the paved roads in the nation.
  • Acceptance: You need to accept that your cell phone will not work everywhere.  Data service is great in towns and varies from good to poor between towns.

Here’s a breakdown of a few of the larger service providers.

cell phone carriers

AT&T:  In the larger cities and towns AT&T has excellent coverage, some even have 4g.  On the long highway stretches between towns they have pretty good coverage but it’s not always 4g.  AT&T operates entirely on their own network of towers.  If they don’t have a tower you won’t have service.

Verizon:  The new kid on the block and they’re building their own towers.  As of December 2014, they have 188 of their own 4g towers and are building 40 more in next few months.  This currently covers the populated areas and when outside their network, you roam on ACS and GCI 3g towers.  This gives you good coverage on the long highway stretches between towns.

T-Mobile:  They don’t have their own network in Alaska and roam on the AT&T network.

Sprint:  What a bunch of tools!  I spoke with 3 different people and none of them could answer the question, who do they roam with in Alaska.  Fortunately, was just trying to double-check what I already knew.  Sprint roams on GCI and ACS towers when in Alaska.  This was verified when I called GCI and the first person I spoke with knew the answer.

*Check your individual service contract about roaming charges so you don’t rack up a huge bill.

Here are links to coverage maps for ACS and GCI!  I also want to point out that the 911 Emergency works on a completely different network,  so your phone will be able to call 911 no matter who has coverage in the area.

We’re also able to boost our coverage strength and area using a signal booster,  Here’s a link to the post I wrote about signal boosting!

Notes about being off the road system and in villages:  There’s a whole other world to Alaska that lives off the road system.  Most of these towns and villages have cell phone coverage.  One thing we’ve noticed is the villages usually don’t have dual coverage.  Meaning, it’s either an AT&T or GCI/ACS village.  Keep in mind, 911 will still work.

You’re probably wondering who is our carrier?  Since we both work from home and are out exploring the state I have an AT&T phone and Rebecca has an ACS/GCI phone.  If there’s a possibility of service we have it!  Sometimes we trek into the no coverage zones just to get away from our phones.

Ben's Canon 065

In summary, we feel Alaska has excellent cell phone coverage.  If you require coverage everywhere you might want to look into satellite phones.

Please leave your thoughts and questions below.

UPDATE: In 2015 there are going to be 100 new cell phone towers on the Canadian side of the Alaska Highway!

 

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