An Alaskan Connection

Meg riding sled runners.

Meg riding sled runners.

Alex pushed the button. The recorded sign-on began. The skies were dark with no light yet on the horizon. If light were to be seen this day, it would be through a break in the overcast sky.

“Eight stars of gold on a field of blue-
Alaska’s flag. May it mean to you…”

The coffee pot perked and the teletype machine clicked and clacked with a harmonious cacophony. All was coming together for another wake-up call to remote Kotzebue and a dozen other villages in northwest Alaska.

“The blue of the sea, the evening sky,
The mountain lakes, and the flow’rs nearby,
The gold of the early sourdough dreams,
The precious gold of the hills and the streams…”

Alex Hills, the manager and engineer of KOTZ, was finally settling in for his 6:00 a.m. morning show. Holding a hot cup of coffee, he warmed his chilled hands. He had removed his Eskimo boots made of caribou hide, hooded parka trimmed with wolf fur, down-lined gloves and balaclava. Alex settled into the studio, making last second corrections to his morning show, jotting down notes and scratching out others.

“The brilliant stars in the northern sky,
The ‘Bear’ – The ‘Dipper’ – and, shining high,
The great North Star with its steady light,
O’er land and sea a beacon bright,
Alaska’s flag – to Alaskans dear,
The simple flag of a last frontier.”

Sign-on was complete, and Alex’s voice was next:

“Good morning northwest Alaska! Hello Kiana! How ya doin’ Shungnak!”

The weather forecasts, morning news and a blend of Top 40 and country music soon followed. Listeners would hear some of the latest songs such as “Big Bad Leroy Brown,” “You’re So Vain,” or “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”

The year was 1973.

The teletype machine translated electrical pulses into readable messages. The machine was the station’s link to the Associated Press wire service, which provided a connection to the world long before the Internet.

Kotzebue sits on a gravel spit jutting into the Chukchi Sea. The town is 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s western coast and approximately 550 air miles from Anchorage. For centuries the people of Kotzebue had survived on beluga whale, ring seal, bearded seal, caribou and moose. The small town was now home to Alex and 1700 residents.

Alex’s morning had started much earlier, long before he pushed the button to commence the daily radio sign-on. A mile from town at the radio station’s transmitter building, Alex had shoveled snow away from the area where he needed to splice wires in the frigid western Alaskan weather. The transmitter sent out the station’s signals and news feeds, allowing Kotzebue to be connected to the outside world.

In order to push the signal a maximum distance, the station had laid copper radial ground wires over the surface of the tundra at the transmitter site. They erected warning signs for snowmachiners and ATVers, but often the warnings went unnoticed and the wires needed repairs. Burying the ground wires was not an option because the ground surrounding the transmitter station was permafrost (permanently frozen ground), which is common in much of northwest Alaska.

The 5000-watt transmitter pushed the station’s signal across hundreds of miles of tundra. Alex entered the frigid transmitter building, opened the gray panels, adjusted a few knobs, closed everything up and boarded his snow machine for a dark and cold ride back to the station’s studio.

But Alex’s story didn’t start in Kotzebue. His interest in communications had begun as a hobby in his youth, when he had yet to understand the impact of technologies we know and use today.

Dits and Dahs

Years earlier, as a teenager, Alex tinkered with vacuum tubes, made adjustments to his Vibroplex telegraph key and sent out radio transmissions. This sounds like something out of a Back to the Future movie, but it’s not. It was Alex in the 1950s at his childhood home in Caldwell, New Jersey. Alex built and operated a ham, or amateur, radio station. He was communicating with other ham radio operators in other towns, in other states and, on an occasional weak-signaled connection, in other continents. Ham radio stations were non-commercial; they were like modern day chat rooms. Ham radio operators received coded messages in audible dits and dahs that they transcribed with pencil and paper, creating written lines of text. This was Alex’s hobby and his life.

Alex and his friends sent,
received and decoded messages worldwide.

With much patience and practice Alex mastered the dits and dahs, known to the rest of us as Morse Code. Morse Code was invented in 1836 by Samuel F. B. Morse and is a means of communication through electrical on and off pulses, otherwise known as an electrical telegraph system. Ham operators employed the same idea, using a telegraph key to turn a transmitter on and off. When Alex first started, he could decode just a few words a minute but soon made the leap up to a Novice Class license, then to a General Class license. With more practice he soon achieved his goal of 20 words per minute and received the highest amateur radio license—Amateur Extra Class.

Alex attended high school in Caldwell. He and three friends shared a passion for ham radio, but they were not well understood by their peers. In fact, their peers didn’t understand them at all. They were sending personal messages to other ham radio operators from corners of their bedrooms called “ham shacks.” While other students played baseball and tried out for the track team, Alex and his friends sent, received and decoded messages worldwide.

Back in Kotzebue, the radio station’s morning routine had started. One by one, team members arrived. Each had a role as part of the lifeline and entertainment source for the villages. The young team at the station consisted of Carolyn, Delbert, Nellie, Joe, and Phyllis. They were a big family. One frequent visitor, a young nurse named Meg, would soon become Alex’s fiance.

Alex and Meg standing in front of the new geodesic dome house they were building in Kotzebue in December 1975.

Alex and Meg standing in front of the new geodesic dome house they were building in Kotzebue in December 1975.

After a short time, Alex and Meg were married. Their “family car” was an old Evinrude snowmachine that could often be seen roaming around Kotzebue and pulling Alex’s 14-foot sled carrying radio gear or groceries and household supplies, sometimes with Meg riding the sled’s runners. For most of the year this was their primary means of transportation.

Alex used a sheet of aluminum to raise the Evinrude’s windshield high enough to cut down the wind chill caused by riding the machine in the sub-zero temperatures so common in the Arctic. That small innovation took the “sting” out of riding in cold weather.

Kotzebue’s nearby Noatak and Kobuk rivers were snowmachine highways from freeze up to break up. The Noatak River was a road to the north—it led to the village of Noatak and beyond. The Kobuk River was a road to the east, a route to the villages of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak and Kobuk.

As spring approached and winter receded, Alex and his friends ventured off those melting river highways, across the tundra on late winter camping expeditions—sometimes coupled with treks on cross country skis. They used snowmachines to travel to a good place to make camp and then had a day of skiing, using the camp as a base. Every trip was an adventure.

 The old Evinrude snowmachine and Alex’s sled.

The old Evinrude snowmachine and Alex’s sled.

At night, as families settled close to the radio, a village elder told traditional stories in Inupiaq. The “Eskimo Stories” have helped to preserve the oral traditions of the northwest. The program continues today, renamed “Inupiaq Stories.”

Phone calls streamed into the KOTZ studio. In 1973 telephones were nonexistent in the villages surrounding Kotzebue. But KOTZ provided a means of communication called the “Tundra Telegraph.”

Delbert read a message into the microphone: “Uncle Willie, my plane arrives in your village at 6:30. Please meet me at the runway.”

And another: “Sister Rachel, Granny left her medicine on the dresser. Send it as soon as possible.”

Technically it was illegal for a broadcast station to send personal messages across the airwaves. But the FCC recognized the limitations in communication for the northwest and looked the other way. The communication challenges of rural Alaska would soon give Alex a new opportunity.

The VHF Telephone

Alaska’s hundreds of small villages needed a better means of communication. KOTZ’s “Tundra Telegrams” and similar services of other radio stations just couldn’t meet the needs that real telephones would. Alex, John Lee and two technicians were hired by RCA Alaska Communications to install a radiotelephone in each village throughout the state.

Painted red and white, John Lee’s Cessna 185 bobbed in the water on its silver-colored floats. The small 185 was ready to take-off from Lake Hood to a remote river, lake or bay in or near a remote village. Upon arrival, Alex would seek out the village chief, elder, mayor or official and explain the bush telephone program, and then try to reach an agreement on where RCA’s radiotelephone equipment would be installed.

John and Alex conducted site surveys. They sought out the best locations for the radio towers to provide direct paths to regional base stations. Obstructions could cause weak signals—or no signals at all.

On one such trip, John and Alex flew the Cessna 185 to Little Diomede Island, to the village of Ignaluk. Little Diomede sits near the middle of the Bering Sea, a few miles from Big Diomede Island. The islands are separated by the international dateline. Little Diomede was inhabited by villagers and American. Big Diomede was inhabited by military personnel and was Russian.
The wind blew over 50 mph that day. John and Alex peered from the Cessna, looking intently for a place to land on the frozen sea ice. With no runway, and only a short window during the spring when landing on the sea ice was possible, their time-frame for connecting Ignaluk to the outside world was short.

John landed the 185, put the nose into the wind and kept the engine running. He would be unable to join Alex in installing a radio antenna and telephone station because of the fierce wind sweeping across the frozen Bering Sea, and there was no place to tie down.

Two hours later, with winds still at 40 mph, a villager told Alex, “Wind never stop.” With that, Alex knew if he was to erect the antenna and connect Ignaluk to a phone service, they were going to just have to get it done no matter what the elements threw at them. Volunteers from the small village jumped up on top of the roof in the midst of the blowing wind, secured the antenna, and luckily without incident, gave Alex the ability to start turning the antenna in search of the strongest signal.

The tall radio tower in Bethel that held base station antennas serving VHF radiophones in nearby villages.

The tall radio tower in Bethel that held base station antennas serving VHF radiophones in nearby villages.

Alex, John and the technicians continued traveling across the state from remote village to remote village, connecting each with a VHF radio phone and giving the people throughout the state a means of communication. It was the beginning of a new communications system for rural Alaska.

Four years later Alex and Meg left Alaska and headed to the East Coast, where Alex had enrolled as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The move from the frozen tundra to Pittsburgh’s Forbes Avenue was as drastic as the change Alex would later make in the world of communication technology.

As when he and John Lee traveled across Alaska, establishing a new communication system in Alaska’s villages, his later journey would again have Alex at the cutting edge, this time at a university that lived on the cutting edge. Alex would be at the forefront of a revolution.

A world leader in “artificial intelligence,” robotics, and computer science, Carnegie Mellon University would one day be celebrating Dr. Alex Hills, the faculty, staff, and students who tirelessly worked to create the world’s first Wi-Fi network.

You can read more about Dr. Alex Hills, his hand in creating Wi-Fi, and his travels in remote parts of Alaska by reading his book Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio, available from Amazon.com or at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska.

Story written by Cecil Sanders
Photos courtesy of the Alex Hills Collection

Hills-(2)Dr. Alex Hills has lived in Alaska for 44 years, including seven years in rural Alaska, where, during the 1970s, he worked on developing the state’s broadcast and telecommunications networks. He served as the first full time General Manager of Kotzebue’s KOTZ, the only radio station in Northwest Alaska, and was the founding President of the OTZ Telephone Cooperative, where he led an initiative to provide telephone service to all of the NANA region’s villages. Alex later became founding General Manager of KSKA, Anchorage’s first public radio station, and served under Governor Jay Hammond as Alaska’s Deputy Commissioner of Administration and chief telecommunications official. Now he is Affiliate Distinguished Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. This year he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from UAA.

Categories: History

2 replies »

  1. I remember when they were building the geodesic dome when I was 3. My mom wanted to see the inside, and I thought it was soo big! Of course it was, for the time. It’s been well maintained by it’s owners. My art teacher bought it when I was in high school, and it was the perfect space for an artist.

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