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Time's ripe for broadband Internet activism in rural Alaska

Jason EvansThe Arctic Sounder
GCI's TERRA network will soon reach rural Alaska hub communities, yet even this vastly improved connectivity is an old technology, delivering speeds that Anchorage and Seattle enjoyed a decade ago. Photo courtesy GCI

Our world is getting faster. Just think about how much time it takes to find information like the news. In the past, the fastest news were breaking news bulletins that interrupted our TV. Nowadays, we get information as soon as it happens. Facebook transmits opinions, pictures and news instantly. I can be in Anchorage at the basketball tournament, and let all my readers instantly see pictures of highlights in Barrow or Kotzebue.

Almost instantly.

The world is getting faster and rural Alaska is barely keeping up. By the time rural Alaska gets caught up, we will be behind again.

In Anchorage, there are exciting things happening with information. AT&T activated its LTE cellular networks, and on your iPhone you can download information faster than using WiFi. This fast new network coincided with news that Verizon Wireless is entering the Alaska telecom market. Verizon is slightly larger than AT&T in the Lower 48 and both networks continuously battle for customers. Verizon's arrival is likely to herald faster mobile broadband.

Right on cue, GCI and Alaska Communications announced they were combining forces in infrastructure to offer LTE to their customers.

Before the end of this year, Southcentral Alaska will have three major networks with blazing fast internet for mobile phones. In rural Alaska, there is no such thing as LTE, or even 4G or 3G, except perhaps if you consider Prudhoe Bay to be rural Alaska.

Dillingham, Bethel and soon Nome will be connected to GCI's TERRA network, a faster technology than satellite with few dropped connections. Even this vastly improved connectivity is an old technology. These improved speeds are what Anchorage or Seattle had a decade ago, and the data caps for individuals households is very low considering the staggering amount of information and data we transmit through the internet nowadays.

The world is only going to get faster.

The benefits of fast internet are too many to name, but a good start is to look at healthcare and education. Electronic Health Records are required by the Affordable Care Act. These files, which help doctors see more of a patient's history and provide better decisions about treatments, are very large. Getting them through to a rural hospital, say in Barrow or Dillingham, would require large amounts of bandwidth.

The trade-off is worse for medical care. Even doctors like fast internet; younger doctors or general practitioners in Lower 48 rural hospitals report feeling more able to do their jobs with telemedicine. Telemedicine allows these doctors to consult specialists in real time and decrease the tension and stress on a doctor, which is one of the biggest reasons good doctors leave small or isolated healthcare centers, which are often on or near Indian lands or rural Alaska.

Twenty years ago we wouldn't have thought that fast internet would help save lives. Let's hope we can keep rural Alaska in the game rather than falling behind. Fast internet connections aren't built just because; we have to make sure they are advocated for and are a priority of not only the local service providers and phone companies but also by our local and state leaders as well.

This article first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Contact Jason Evans at jevans(at)reportalaska.com.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.