Business/Economy

Alaska internet ‘gold rush’: Billions could be headed to rural communities to close the digital divide

A “gold rush” is on for Alaska tribes and Native corporations that are trying to capture a surge of federal infrastructure money to provide city-quality broadband service in more than 200 villages statewide.

Representatives for the groups say this could be their moment to transform lives and village economies by upgrading the glitchy, slow and often unaffordable cell phone and internet service that exists across rural Alaska.

“This will be life-changing,” said Kevin Hamer, general manager of Yukon Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium.

The group, representing several tribes, has applied for a $300 million federal grant to bring high-speed internet to 17 villages in Southwest Alaska.

They’re one of several tribal groups or Alaska Native corporations that are applying for a chunk of roughly $3 billion that has been set aside for tribes nationally by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Much of that money comes from last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Some of the groups are teaming up with telecommunications companies in hopes of winning grants to extend fiber-optic cable, considered the gold standard for broadband delivery, to rural communities.

Others are trying to win grants to get satellite-delivered broadband using low-earth orbiting satellites. Supporters say the service would be available more quickly in Alaska’s villages than fiber, but it’s still being tested in Alaska. Some groups say their broadband might cost less than $100 monthly, a fraction of what rural residents currently pay.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to actually get the infrastructure we need in rural Alaska,” said Hallie Bissett, chair of the governor’s broadband task force and head of the group that represents Alaska Native village corporations.

She said with so much money potentially coming to Alaska, she worries there won’t be enough workers to complete it all.

The Alaska Native village corporation for Bethel has applied for $43 million of the tribal broadband grant. It’s working with GCI, the largest telecommunications provider in Alaska.

If they win, their proposal would connect Bethel and other villages in 2024 to a fiber extension into Dillingham, another hub community in Southwest Alaska, GCI announced last year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of remote learning, remote working and accessing remote health care reinforced the need to close the digital divide throughout Western Alaska,” said Ana Hoffman, president of the Bethel village corporation, in a press release.

Alaska Communications, another Alaska telecommunications provider, is partnering on two applications for the tribal money.

[The Alaska Permanent Fund is making its biggest investments within Alaska since the 1980s, but many of the details remain secret]

It has submitted a proposal led by Calista and Doyon, two large regional Native corporations, and Gana-A ‘Yoo, the Native corporation for four Interior villages. The plan would extend fiber to homes in 23 communities, from Fort Yukon on the Yukon River, down to Napakiak near Bethel on the Kuskokwim River.

It’s a “fiber backbone that will positively transform our region,” said Dena Sommer-Pedebone, chief executive of of Gana-A ‘Yoo.

In a second proposal led by Hoonah Indian Association, a Southeast Alaska tribe, Alaska Communications would extend fiber to homes in Hoonah and Gustavus, two Southeast Alaska communities with about 1,300 residents between them.

An ACS official declined to say how much money the two efforts are seeking.

The amount of federal money available is unprecedented, observers say. The infrastructure bill is pumping $65 billion into broadband improvements nationwide, and Alaska, with its huge needs, is expected to take an outsized share.

[Infrastructure bill to bring billions to Alaska for roads, ports and broadband. Here are some of the specifics.]

The money for the tribal groups is only part of the opportunity for Alaska, said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association. Additional grants are also available that businesses and tribes can apply for, including under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Among other benefits, the infrastructure bill will provide at least $100 million to each state to administer for broadband projects, she said. But Alaska, with its high infrastructure costs, could potentially land much more, she said.

“I expect we’re going to see a major buildout of broadband infrastructure in Alaska,” she said. “We have not seen this level of funding available for broadband in rural areas ever.”

Rural residents say it’s about time. Better internet and cellular service would give people reliable access to online educational courses, work meetings and telemedicine, among other needs, they say.

“A lot of people would get access to the internet and get the stuff we need, like IDs, services we can apply for, ordering cheaper goods here,” said Mike McIntyre, a Yup’ik musician and YouTube content provider from Bethel.

McIntyre said he needs an hour to load a 5-minute video onto YouTube, he said.

He typically paid GCI, the internet and cell phone provider in Bethel, about $800 a month after his family exceeded data caps, he said. After the pandemic hurt his income from live performances, he racked up more than $3,000 in bills.

GCI recently cut him off.

“It’s like a second mortgage,” he said.

The rush of applications is like a “gold rush,” said Jim Berlin, general manager for Alaska Tribal Spectrum.

The consortium, with about 100 tribes, is the largest group trying to win part of the tribal money for broadband.

It has applied for $250 million to distribute satellite-delivered signals in roughly 100 villages from Southwest Alaska to Southeast, Berlin said.

The consortium plans to install towers in villages, and send a 2.5-gigahertz signal over the tundra. The group recently received a free broadcast license under a separate federal program for tribes in the Federal Communications Commission.

[Energy grants for Alaska Native corporation and US tribes are aimed at meeting vast power needs]

“We’re trying to offer the most economical value to the federal government,” Berlin said. “This will help people join the 21st century now.”

Crystal Dushkin, president of the tribal government in Atka in the Aleutian Islands, said the tribe became a member of Alaska Tribal Spectrum to speed up internet and reduce costs in the village.

There’s currently no cell phone service provider in the village, about 1,100 miles southwest of Anchorage. But under the plan, Alaska Tribal Spectrum could be that provider, she said.

Dushkin’s family is now paying about $450 monthly to GCI for internet, sometimes more. The signal is weak, and she sometimes can only get audio for online work meetings or university lectures, because Zoom and other platforms are glitchy.

“High-speed internet is going to provide so many opportunities that we haven’t had access to,” she said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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