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From telegraph wires to 4G, Alaska telecommunication is slow to upgrade

Megan Edge

Alaska has struggled with telecommunications since more than a century before statehood, and even though it has made great strides in improvement the state says it still has quite a way to go. In rural Alaska, increased access to the Internet and the use of smartphones have proved useful in times when a community's way of life has been compromised by the state's harsh elements and unpredictable weather.

In November of last year, Western Alaska was hit by a series of storms that ruined village water tanks, sewage systems and food supplies. The area's people took to Facebook and Twitter to repeatedly ask for assistance from the state and Gov. Sean Parnell. They posted dozens of pictures on community and personal pages and held rallies in Anchorage, all in an effort to get government attention. Eventually, five western communities received disaster declarations and the assistance that comes with the designation.

Residents in the region saw it as proof that their social media efforts had worked.

But an economic report from the state says that the benefits could be even greater. Improved telecommunications would help everything from education and emergency response to economic activity, according to the April 2014 edition of Alaska Economic Trends, prepared by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The report is packed with historical information about Alaska telecommunications, as well as conclusions about contemporary telecom issues facing the state. Highlights include:

• Alaskans overall have slower access and download speeds than residents of other states, but they pay more for their services than the rest of the nation.
• Satellites have helped Alaska's telecommunications significantly, but technology was created faster than the infrastructure to support it could be built -- just one more struggle in a long history of communication issues. 
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In the 1800s, it took roughly three months to send a letter from Alaska to Seattle and receive a response. Anything to and from the nation's capital took about a year.
• A century later, the U.S. funded the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph system. The wires were strung from the Interior to the
Kenai Penninsula and connected Southcentral Alaska's telegraph systems to Canada's. Western and Interior Alaska could finally send a telegraph message through Canada to Skagway and then on to the contiguous U.S. by steamer. These improvements made it possible to send a telegraph from Nome to Washington, D.C., in four days' time. 
• H
arsh weather ruined telegraph lines and by 1926 they had all been replaced by a radio network.
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Alaska's role in World War II prompted more upgrades. For the first time, Alaska could reach the Lower 48 by telephone. The Cold War and threats of Soviet attacks prompted more upgrades. By the late 1960s the space age pushed Alaska to hit more banner telecommunication developments.
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Television broadcast began in the 1950's. And in 1969 Anchorage saw its first live broadcast -- the Apollo 11 moon landing. Two years late the NFC championship football game was aired live.
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Now the focus is on bringing 48 rural Alaska communities 3G and 4G wireless, an improvement from their 2G service, which is so slow it's not actually considered broadband.

The full April 2014 Alaska Economic Trends report is available online for review and download.

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