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Memoir delivers engaging account of bringing phones to rural Alaska villages

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published February 11, 2017

Finding Alaska's Villages: And Connecting Them

By Alex Hills; Dog Ear Publishing; 2016; 188 pages; $19.95

Alaskans are used to cellphones, satellite dishes and internet service pretty much anywhere in the state, even the smallest villages. The networks these services were built on, however, are quite new compared to elsewhere in America. In fact, modern telephone service didn't reach rural Alaska until the 1970s, the same time that television and radio arrived as well.

The primary reason for the delay was the absence of profit. There weren't enough people living in remote regions of the state to make commercial systems pay for themselves. Governmental intervention and the dedication of a handful of people willing to tackle the logistical problems of connecting rural Alaska to the greater world was required to make it happen.

One such individual was Palmer resident Alex Hills, who spent the early years of his career laying the groundwork for telephone networks and helping launch public radio stations in some of the last places in America to acquire them. In his second memoir, "Finding Alaska's Villages: And Connecting Them," he tells of his adventures in this field and offers personal observations of some other key players. It's personal history, but it offers a firsthand account of a decade of rapid change in Alaska.

'Bad Boys of Radio'

Hills isn't a household name, but he's been a major innovator both here and internationally in the realm of electronic communications. Among other things, he helped create the world's first large wireless network at Carnegie Mellon, where he is a distinguished service professor (he's also on the University of Alaska faculty). Part of what he brought to that project was knowledge he acquired overcoming communications obstacles in Alaska, which he wrote about in his previous memoir, "Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio."

His new book is strictly about Alaska, where Hills arrived at the onset of the 1970s. Armed with degrees in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he earned his bachelor's, and Arizona State University where he obtained his master's, he was ideally suited for the job he took establishing phone services in rural villages.

In 1971, Alaska Communications Systems, then run by the U.S. Air Force, was purchased by the Radio Corporation of America, or RCA. As part of the agreement, state officials demanded that RCA provide phone service to 142 villages within three years. Until then, villages had depended on short-wave radio for contacting other areas, especially when dealing with medical issues.

Hills was hired to travel the state and set each village up with a single telephone that would be shared by all the residents. The early chapters of the book detail the headaches he faced building primitive systems, including vast distances, weather and corporate foot dragging.

Hills kept abreast of technological advances and soon realized that the most efficient way to serve the villages would be with small satellite earth stations that could send and receive signals from space rather than attempting to relay them via land transmitters. RCA was in no hurry to try this idea, however, and by 1973 Hills was burned out by lack of progress and took a job launching KOTZ, the public radio station in Kotzebue.

Different story in Kotzebue

This is where the book gets particularly interesting. Public radio was still a fairly new idea in the early 1970s, and in much of the country it provided classical music and jazz programming, serving listening audiences that were too small to make commercial stations viable.

In Kotzebue, it was a different story. There the purpose of the station was to reach dozens of outlying villages and connect residents with each other and the outside world. Thus the station was placed on the AM band, which provided it with a broader range than it would have had on FM. It was staffed by local residents, who brought their own personalities to the airwaves. Musical programming was primarily top-40 and country and western, something that would have horrified public radio aficionados in metropolitan markets, but that met the demands of listeners in Northwest Alaska who had never had a radio station before.

Hills was hired as both the manager and engineer, and he also held down the morning shift. His stories of this time are a lot of fun to read. One of the station's best innovations was its "Eskimo Stories" program wherein "the region's elders took turns telling traditional stories in the Inupiaq language … Through their stories, the elders helped to preserve the vanishing oral legends of the Inupiaq of northwest Alaska." The same technology that was irrevocably changing rural Alaska was simultaneously archiving its remembered history. The series continues today as "Inupiaq Stories."

KOTZ became a focus for the region with local news, missing-persons reports, birth and death announcements, and the relaying of personal messages. It highlighted for Hills the need for better communications networks and phone service.

The election of Jay Hammond as governor in 1974 was the turning point for connecting the villages. After a lot of pushing, RCA finally agreed to install satellite stations, and home phones became a reality for most Alaskans living outside the major population centers. Rural Alaska became a part of the modern world.

"Finding Alaska's Villages" is a quick read, enlivened by Hills' amiable writing style and his readiness to credit a great many people for their roles in connecting the farthest reaches of the state to each other and beyond. While a personal memoir, it tells a much bigger story than just the author's experiences. On first glance it wouldn't seem like a particularly interesting topic to anyone other than technology geeks, but Hills' enthusiasm, generosity toward others and focus on the human side of the story with a minimum of clearly explained science and engineering help make it an accessible read for anyone interested in an important part of how Alaska got where it is today.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.