The federal government has announced more than $100 million in grants to bring high-speed fiber internet to many Southwest Alaska villages, part of a massive investment to close the digital divide in rural areas. The money is coming in large part from last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
The projects will be a leap forward for the region’s current system of internet service, which is a series of microwave transmitters with limited data transmission and vulnerability to bad weather.
The grants include $73 million for a project partnership involving Bethel Native Corporation, the Alaska Native village corporation for Bethel, and telecommunications company GCI, to deliver fiber cable to 10 villages and more than 10,000 people.
In that effort, $43 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will bring fiber service to Bethel, a transportation hub in the region, and four other villages, which are Eek, Oscarville, Napaskiak and Platinum.
Also, a $31 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service program will bring fiber service to other villages in the Bethel region: Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak and Tuntutuliak.
In a separate project, Alaska Communications and Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for much of Southwest Alaska, will receive a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to bring high-speed fiber internet to more than 2,300 Alaskans in seven other villages in the Bethel region.
They are: Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, Kwethluk and Napakiak, the organizations announced last week.
Calista and Alaska Communications applied for about $52 million from the agency, but the specific funding award has not been announced by the federal government as of Monday, said Thom Leonard, a spokesman with Calista.
State and federal leaders, and officials with Alaska Native and telecommunications firms, have said the infrastructure bill and other sources provide a once-in-a-lifetime moment to improve telecommunications in many areas of Alaska. They say it’s an opportunity similar to other periods of U.S. infrastructure upgrades, such as investments in building the federal highway system in the 1950s.
In August, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration also announced a $50 million grant as part of a collaboration between Doyon Inc., the Alaska Native corporation for the Interior, and Alaska Communications. The grant was for providing fiber-optic cable to about 20 villages in the Interior from Fairbanks.