The White Alice Communications System (WACS) was a United States Air Force telecommunication network constructed in Alaska during the Cold War. It used tropospheric scatter for over-the-horizon links and microwave relay for shorter line-of-sight links. Sites were characterized by large parabolic, tropospheric scatter antennas as well as smaller microwave dishes for point to point links.
The system connected remote Air Force sites in Alaska, such as Aircraft Control and Warning (AC&W), Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) and Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), to command and control facilities and in some cases it was used for civilian phone calls. The system was advanced for its time, but became obsolete within 20 years following the advent of satellite communications.
White Alice was conceived in the 1950s when Alaska had only basic telephone communication systems. For example, prior to White Alice only one phone call at a time could be placed from Nome to Fairbanks. Communication improved after White Alice was installed, but even in the mid 1960s an Anchorage resident had to go to one location downtown to place a call to the lower 48.
The Air Force built the White Alice Communications System with numerous support facilities around the state to provide reliable communications to far-flung, isolated, and often rugged locales. Construction began in 1955 and the system was dedicated in 1958. In the end, 71 systems were installed throughout Alaska. White Alice was designed by Western Electric, and civilian contractors maintained it. In 1976, the WACS was leased to RCA Alascom. By the end of the 1970s, most of the system was deactivated.
In the 1950s the Air Force used two word code names and White Alice was the code name selected for the project. It is fairly certain that White was used to indicate the snowy Arctic sites that the system would serve. However, it is unclear where the term Alice originated. Some sources suggest that Alice is an acronym for ALaska Integrated Communications Enterprise. Other sources suggest that the system would have been named Alice White had there not been an actress with that name at the time. Thus it was reversed to White Alice. It is also possible that the code name White Alice was selected for no particular reason.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Alaska district surveyed and selected each one of the original sites. It also constructed 11 of the original 31 sites. The selection process required that survey teams test the propagation path by setting up communication towers at each remote site during winter months. Some of the sites were easily accessible, but most of the sites were far from civilization on remote mountain peaks. 14 tons of equipment were taken by dogsled or helicopter to survey the sites.
Construction was extremely expensive, with initial estimates around $30 million, but the first phase cost over $110 million. Project Stretchout drove costs over $300 million. Part of this expense was due to Western Electric's underestimate of maintenance requirements. They initially estimated that a single site would require six people and one 25 kW generator. However, each site required 20 people and 120 kW to 180 kW of electrical power to operate. In remote areas, an airfield was constructed to deliver supplies to the sites. Since electricity was not available at the sites, diesel generators and fuel tanks had to be placed, and quarters for the technicians were also required. Mountain top sites had an upper camp with the electronic equipment and a lower camp with support facilities. These were sometimes connected by a tram system. In addition to the support equipment, a typical White Alice repeater site consisted of four tropospheric dishes, grouped in pairs of two facing opposite directions to receive and transmit information from adjacent sites.
The tropospheric scatter system operated around 900 MHz, and utilized both space diversity and frequency diversity, multiplexing a maximum of 132 simultaneous voice channels. The tropospheric hops used pairs of 60 ft (18 m) or 120 ft (37 m) parabolic, billboard like reflectors pointed at a low angle into the horizon. The radio waves were scattered by the tropopause, returning to Earth beyond the horizon, allowing communication between stations hundreds of kilometers apart. Having two antennas allowed for space diversity, meaning that if tropospheric conditions degrade on one path the second path might still be clear and communications would not be disrupted. For frequency diversity, each antenna transmitted two separate frequencies. Using both frequency and space diversity was called quad diversity. System power output for most shots was 10 kW and used 60 ft (18 m) antennas. Longer shots used 120 ft (37 m) antennas with 50 kW and shorter shots used 1 kW and 30 ft (9 m), round parabolic dishes.
The end of White Alice
After 1970, WACS was transferred from Air Force control to RCA Alascom and served civilian use until the late 1970s, when it was superseded by satellite communication earth stations. The last tropospheric link, from Boswell Bay to Neklasson Lake, was used until January 1985 to connect Middleton Island to the network. Vandalism, unsafe conditions and environmental concerns caused the Department of Defense (DOD) to remove physical structures at the sites between the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Several former White Alice sites and collocated facilities became contaminated sites managed by Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation - Contaminated Sites Program and DOD Cleanup programs sites because of PCB usage and fuel leakage from storage tanks. It is likely the cost to clean up some of the sites will far exceed the cost of construction.
- List of White Alice Communications System sites, a list of sites in the White Alice system
- Distant Early Warning Line
- Ballistic Missile Early Warning System
- Western Electric — Designer / maintainer of White Alice
- North Atlantic Radio System (NARS) is a similar system used in the GIUK gap area.
- ACE High — A NATO communication system in Europe including similar tropospheric systems
- Elmendorf Air Force Base Command site for the Air Force in Alaska
- AT&T Alascom
- Alaskan Air Command — Original reason for White Alice
- Radio propagation
- Tropospheric scatter
- Submarine communications cable
- HAER. "Rabbit Creek White Alice Site, Anchorage Alaska, Anchorage, Anchorage District, AK". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-02-14.
- S. Reid (June 1985). "Earth Stations Bring an End to White Alice". Communications News. Retrieved 2006-02-14.
- "Contaminated Sites Program - Federal Facilities in Alaska". Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Retrieved 2010-11-03.
- HAER. "Boswell Bay White Alice Site, Cordova vicinity, Valdez-Cordova District, AK". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-02-14.
- HAER. "Boswell Bay White Alice Site, Tropospheric Antennas, Chugach National Forest, Cordova vicinity, Valdez-Cordova District, AK". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-02-14.
- Department of Defense Contaminated Sites in Alaska
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to White Alice.|
- Russian tropospheric relay communication network
- Troposcatter communication network maps
- North Atlantic Radio System - NARS
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