As the federal government pours funding toward broadband expansion in Alaska, officials unveiled an additional $100 million Tuesday to grow rural internet access.
The latest installment of funding comes on top of $1 billion for Alaska rural broadband projects the White House announced in June, and brings the total investment under the Biden administration to about $2 billion. Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, White House Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu and Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola discussed the funding at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage on Tuesday.
Broadband development in rural Alaska has lagged for years — close to 200 communities do not have modern, high-speed internet. Building out fiber networks in remote regions of Alaska is complicated, costly and time-consuming. Federal and state officials have long pledged to close the so-called “digital divide.”
“This kind of infrastructure isn’t about fluff. It’s about putting food on the table for a lot of Alaskan families,” Peltola said of the latest broadband investments.
“So even more than a financial commitment, this funding is a personal commitment from all of us here that we won’t tolerate rural Alaskans being left out of the opportunities of the modern age,” she said.
The funding, via the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program grants, will go toward 38 projects nationally, including three in Alaska.
Cordova Telephone Cooperative Inc. will be granted $34.9 million for fiber and wireless internet for 28 people, eight businesses and one educational facility in the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area, Peltola told reporters Monday.
Asked about the millions being directed to build internet for a small community, Peltola said, “If you choose to live in Sleetmute, you should still have the same opportunity to information as people who live in Anchorage.”
Unicom, Inc. — a subsidiary of telecommunications company GCI — will get $35 million for a project in the Bethel and Kusilvak census areas that is anticipated to impact nearly 1,472 people, 22 businesses and two educational facilities.
Billy Wailand, the senior vice president of corporate development for GCI, said the funding will directly serve three communities, but also provide “the backbone to expand to even more communities.”
Bush-Tell Inc. will receive $29.9 million to build fiber connections in the Bethel and Yukon-Kuskokwim census areas. The project is expected to provide broadband access to nearly 697 people, 38 businesses and seven educational facilities.
Thousands in Alaska have started relying on terminals that connect to low-orbit satellites to access the internet, although that service comes with some limitations, like less stability.
Asked about the uptake of satellite internet in rural Alaska, Wailand said that there will continue to be demand for fiber in Alaska. He said GCI’s view is that the “consumer needs to go where they get the best service, the best deal. When we deliver fiber to these communities, we are confident that we are going to able to deliver that best service to those consumers.”
Beaudreau and Landrieu are among the latest Biden administration officials to travel to Alaska in recent months to highlight federal infrastructure investments. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrapped up a three-day Alaska tour last week. First lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Bethel in May to tout funding for broadband.
Also on their trip, Beaudreau and Landrieu met with Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office as well as Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and leaders with the Alaska Federation of Natives. Beaudreau said they also planned to visit Napakiak in Western Alaska and the Little Tonsina Bridge project in the Copper River Basin, which have both also received millions in federal dollars.
Daily News reporter Iris Samuels contributed.