There are two stories concerning the origin of the name "White Alice". The first is that Alice was an acronym for Alaska Integrated Communications Enterprise (Baker 1987). Because the code name had to consist of two words, White was selected because it seemed appropriate to for long Alaskan winters. However, Alice White turned out to be the name of a silent screen actress. Rather than scrap the name, the two words were transposed. "White Alice" seemed more suitable. Another story simply maintains that the Air Force chose White Alice for no particular reason and that it was not an acronym for anything. The association with snow, ice and white has made White Alice a memorable name--one easily associated with remote mountain tops and man-made structures framed in ice and snow.
White Alice successfully linked AC&W sites and DEW-line sites into a cohesive network, and relayed communications back to Elmendorf AFB and Eielson AFB. Additionally, two routes linked the Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site (BMEWS) at Clear AFB to NORAD headquarters in Colorado. The cost of the system was formidable. The estimated cost to build it was 38 million dollars. However, the first phase of construction actually cost 3 and 1/2 times that, or 113 million dollars. The government estimate for construction of Sitkinak, for example, was $755,711. When the District Engineer opened the bid packages, he was amazed to find the lowest bid was $943,000. The other bids were over $1,000,000. A negotiated price of $3,000,000 for the North River (Unalakleet) station set the precedent for future cost estimates (Alaskan Air Command 1956a, 1956b; WECO 1957). The combination of tightening budgets, spiraling costs, the threat of a steel strike, and the severity of the 1956-57 winter delayed completion of the original network from 1957 to March 1959.
1962 additions to the system--BMEWS, Stretchout--drove the cost up to an unheard of 300 million dollars. This incredible leap in cost was due to many factors. For example, WECO had assumed that remote tropo sites would require six station attendants and one 25 KW generator. In reality, 20 people and a 120 to 180 KW generator were required. When asked about the initial projectís enormous cost, the commander of the Alaskan Air Command, Brigadier General K.H. Gibson, was quoted as saying: "Americans are great believers in insurance, and White Alice is a blue chip policy" (Roche N.D.).
As with previous communications projects, building White Alice was a monumental task:
"Despite deep snow and sub-zero cold, the job had to start at once if tight schedules were to be kept. The first task was to select the sites. .Some were easy to reach. Most were atop mountains far from†civilization. Siting and testing parties got there by dogsled, by tractor, by helicopter and by shoe leather.. .Trips to mountain tops through the clutching snow and the howling wind had to be repeated--and repeated... Fourteen tons of equipment were required to erect a 50-foot temporary tower at each site.. .On numerous occasions, the men were forced to surrender before the onslaught of cold, wind and snow and were immobilized for days, even weeks. This ordeal of waiting was of times made doubly galling by the knowledge that supplies and parts needed for the job were only a few miles distant but inaccessible because the white wall of winter had become impenetrable" (Western Electric Company N.D.).
At its height, in the early 60s, WACS contained 1 1/2 million miles of circuitry--enough wire to encircle the globe 57 times. It was an example of the latest and most sophisticated telecommunications technology in the world, combining, as it did, conventional microwave with new forward propagation tropospheric scatter. Yet, even before the original 33 stations had been completed, a new technology appeared which would soon render WACS obsolete. On 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite. Ironically, it was not until 26 March 1958 that the original White Alice system was dedicated on Elmendorf AFB. If Sputnik was the first nail in the coffin, Telstar, the first experimental communications satellite, launched in 1962, was the penultimate. The launching of the first viable communications satellite, SATCOM, in 1973, was the last.
In 1967, Congress passed Public Law 90-135. "Alaska Communications Disposal Act," for the purpose of transferring U.S. government-owned long-haul communications facilities in Alaska. Since the early days of WAMCATS, the military had provided long-distance communications for the entire state. This era came to an end. Bids were solicited in 1968 for taking over WACS. The following year, RCA established RCA Alaska Communications, Inc. (now ALASCOM) and became the successful bidder. In 1970, the Public Utilities Commission granted authority to Alascom for takeover of the system and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled all real estate transfers (see Baker 1987). This extremely complicated process took 13 years, and included several lease arrangements and negotiations, notably sale of the BMEWS A Route prior to final approval of the sale. (see Baker 1987 for a detailed account of the WACS sale). With the advent of communications satellites in 1973, the tropo stations were simply out of date, although the TD-2 stations continue to provide necessary system redundancy. Because the Air Force had not intended WACS to fulfill all communications needs in Alaska, and perhaps because Sputnik and Telstar spelled doom for the system, WACS was not upgraded or refurbished to compete with such a rapidly changing technology. During the 1970ís, solid state electronics and satellites became commonplace, while White Alice continued on a slower trajectory using klystron vacuum tubes. White Alice will be remembered as the project that ". .served the nationís defense and let Alaska speak" (Western Electric Company N.D.). 'WACSí technology revolutionized telecommunications in the 1950ís only to be as greatly eclipsed in less than a generationís time by an equally revolutionary technology.
Today, in the late-1980ís, satellite technology is commonplace. New developments will inevitably improve and replace what we currently take for granted. For example, fiber optic cables with almost limitless voice capabilities are being tested and are replacing underwater wire cables. More amazing is Project Meteorburst, already in limited use in some parts of Alaska by the Federal government. Instead of bouncing a signal off the troposphere, a unique idea 35 years ago, the signal is deflected from the trails of passing meteors and beamed with high accuracy to the receiving antenna. Without the original concept that went into the WACS tropospheric scatter system, Meteorburst might still be years in the future.
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