The Obama administration awarded roughly $10 million on Tuesday to boost Internet access in Alaska libraries and improve Internet literacy and usage in the state's rural communities.
The two grants are a small part of federal stimulus legislation targeted to improve Internet access in parts of the United States where it remains poor. Via the stimulus, millions have already been awarded to private companies to improve commercial Internet access in rural Alaska.
The grants announced Tuesday by the U.S. Commerce Department involve $5.4 million to the state's library system and $4.5 million to the University of Alaska. Geared toward education instead of business, the grants are being supported with contributions from state and Outside organizations.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, estimated that the UAF funding will create nearly 90 jobs and help 88,000 rural Alaskans improve their access to technical training and to information they can only obtain in their communities by going online.
The library grant is supposed to be used over the next three years to increase Internet speed at most of Alaska's libraries and launch a free video conference system for all library users. The library upgrades are also being supported by $2.9 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation.
Eighty percent of the libraries in Alaska do not meet the slowest Internet speed -- 1.5 megabits per second -- recommended by the American Library Association, according to state librarian Linda Thibodeau. Those libraries (none of them in Anchorage) are the ones targeted for speed upgrades, she said.
Thibodeau said she expects the upgrades will begin within a year but the work needs to go through the state's competitive bidding process.
She said video conferencing will allow library users to take classes online or chat with family members who are serving in the military overseas, for example.
"Every library will get at least one video-conferencing setup," she said.
The second grant, to UA, will provide $4.5 million to finance computer skills and broadband awareness training in villages across Alaska where Internet access and computer literacy remains low. The UA project is also being supported with $2.4 million from a variety of state agencies and other organizations.
The project encompasses everything from improving rural Internet access to professional exams and technical publications to telemedicine training for community health aides.
One aspect of the project involves creating public computer stations at 11 village health clinics in northern Alaska where people can research health-related topics. Another involves training via the Alaska Vocational Technical Center to recruit and train 80 "village internet agents" who can then work as certified information technology specialists in their communities.
Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.