WASHINGTON — The White House announced more than $1 billion in new funding for Alaska broadband access Monday, money that officials say will play a significant role in bringing improved internet to rural Alaska communities.
The investment is one piece of the $42 billion President Joe Biden announced will be distributed across the country. Alaska is one of 19 states to receive over $1 billion and received the top allocation per capita.
Close to 200 Alaska communities do not have access to modern, high-speed internet. It’s an issue federal and state officials have tried to tackle for years, but navigating Alaska’s complex terrain and making a business case to take on the costly infrastructure projects has proven challenging.
Hallie Bissett, the director of network services for Tribal Ready Inc. and former chair of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s broadband task force, called the $1 billion in funding “once in a generation.”
“I think it goes a heck of a long way,” she said in an interview Monday. “It should light up a lot of villages that are still today without any kind of broadband access whatsoever.”
To access the funding, the state of Alaska must submit a proposal detailing its plans by the end of the year. Once approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the state can begin access the money and distribute it through grants.
Bissett said that past federal investments in expanding Alaska broadband have aimed high, including an effort under the Obama administration, but communities remain disconnected. While Bissett expects the state to encounter some of the same challenges — like limited availability of fiber optic cable — she said she is “absolutely” more confident now, given the sheer amount of money in this allocation and the coordination already taking place between the state, municipalities and tribes.
“This time around with this amount of money going out, we believe that Alaska will finally be on par with rest of United States when it comes to at least basic broadband service,” Bissett said.
The funding comes from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, a law Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski helped negotiate. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan also advocated for broadband-related provisions in the bill.
Before Monday’s announcement, millions of dollars already have flooded the state for broadband in recent years, much of it from the infrastructure law. Just over the past two weeks, the Department of Agriculture awarded $100 million to improve rural Alaska high speed internet, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced an $88 million grant for broadband provider Quintillion to build a project from Nome to Homer.
“We’ve had an acceleration in deployment happening over about the last three years,” Christine O’Connor, the executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, said in a Monday interview. The billion-dollar allotment, she said, “is going to turbocharge that. All of a sudden there will be enough money to build pretty much everywhere where people don’t have access.”
“This, combined with the other federal programs, is going to be meaningful,” O’Connor said. “Over time, as everything gets built, I think it’s going to virtually close the digital divide in Alaska.”
In May, first lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Bethel, a regional hub that does not have a high-speed fiber connection to highlight $100 million already dedicated to improving internet access in the region.
As internet access in rural Alaska draws an influx of attention and dollars, Northwest Alaska and North Slope communities are experiencing a major fiber outage, exemplifying the complicated nature of providing broadband in the state. Earlier this month, ice movement offshore Utqiagvik cut the subsea fiber network operated by Quintillion, causing interruptions that could take six to eight weeks to fix.
Alaska’s congressional delegation sent a letter Friday urging Alan Davidson, National Telecommunications and Information Administration administrator with the Commerce department, to “fully consider” the challenges Alaska faces, including the states’ topography, poverty rates and lack of population density, when deciding on the state’s allocation.
In statements on Monday, Murkowski, Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said the $1 billion is significant.
“Recent internet outages in rural Alaska demonstrate the unique challenges our state faces in building a reliable network, which makes funding like this all the more important,” Peltola said.
“We are now on the verge of providing thousands of Alaskans in rural communities with better, faster, more reliable access to the internet — a basic necessity that many in the Lower 48 take for granted,” Murkowski said.
“These funds will go a long way toward the goal of connecting every single Alaskan, which will unlock limitless possibilities in terms of telehealth, education and small-business opportunities,” Sullivan said.