Business/Economy

Alaska ramps up effort to land billions in federal funding to close digital divide

Alaska Broadband Summit and Workshop

Alaska leaders are stepping up efforts to land a giant chunk of more than $65 billion that’s available to improve broadband service across the U.S., largely through last year’s infrastructure bill.

They and others say the money offers a historic moment to improve internet service in the state, especially in rural Alaska, one of the least-connected areas in the U.S.

At the invitation of Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, several top federal officials overseeing much of that money are in the state this week to see its internet shortcomings and the challenges Alaska faces in closing the digital divide.

They’re visiting rural communities, and attended a summit in Anchorage on Tuesday to hear from Alaska tribal groups, utilities, regulatory officials and others about the state’s needs. Many of those Alaska organizations are racing to win grants and loans to improve internet service in different regions of the state.

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

At the summit, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, creating a state broadband office to help coordinate and maximize efforts to install high-speed internet in communities across Alaska, many of which often suffer from slow, glitchy and unreliable service.

Alan Davidson, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Commerce Department and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told the audience that people have talked for decades about closing the digital divide in Alaska and the U.S..

Now is finally the time, he said.

“This is a generational opportunity,” he said. “These kinds of resources, they don’t come along very often. We are going to spend tens of billions of dollars in this country. We are going to spend billions here in Alaska most likely. We need to get it right.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is overseeing well over $40 billion provided by the infrastructure bill nationally. It comes atop other for funding streams for broadband improvements in the bill, as well as existing funding, such as a $1.5 billion program under the Federal Communications Commission to extend broadband service in some areas.

In Fairbanks on Monday, Davidson announced a $50 million tribal broadband grant to provide high-speed Internet to about 20 villages in the Interior, including Tanana. The grant is provided to Doyon, the Alaska Native regional corporation for the region, which is part of a collaboration with Alaska Communications Services to extend fiber-optic cable from Fairbanks to the villages.

Davidson traveled to Tanana on Monday and said he saw firsthand how modern internet service will change that village.

“It’s transformational,” he said. “It’s access to educational resources. It’s access to economic opportunities. It’s access to telehealth. But it was interesting to see it was also bringing some hope to a community (that was) wondering about the future, and thinking about how they can preserve their identity while also accessing the resources of the modern digital economy.”

Davidson and other federal officials this week plan to make additional stops in the Bethel and Kodiak regions, to see the internet limitations that exist in those Southwest Alaska regions.

Sen. Sullivan said three quarters of the federal officials overseeing the broadband money nationally are in the state this week, including two commissioners with the Federal Communications Commission, Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr.

The goal of the summit and bringing the federal officials to Alaska was to gather people to start networking and coordinating efforts, he said. He urged the audience of more that 150 to press federal officials on the need for better internet in Alaska

Alaska Broadband Summit and Workshop

We want to “seize this incredible opportunity we have before us, which is to fully connect every part of Alaska, every village, every community to broadband and other internet connectivity,” Sullivan said.

Much of the funding in Alaska will be dependent on a map of internet needs that will be created by the Federal Communications Communication, Sullivan said. It’s important that Alaskans make sure the map is created properly so the state can receive the money it desperately needs, Sullivan said.

Permitting challenges, labor shortages and workforce training will also need to be addressed to make sure projects can advance when money is available, Sullivan said.

Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the state’s largest Alaska Native organization, said there will be a lot of competition for the money nationally. The group this spring received a $35 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help reduce barriers to broadband use among many Alaska Native organizations.

“We want to see every penny we can up in Alaska,” Borromeo said, part of a panel during the summit that discussed tribal opportunities. “It’s a bit of a David and Goliath story. The only way we get to be Goliath is by working together.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy told the audience that high-speed internet service in villages will increase opportunities for people to work, study and get health services remotely without leaving town.

“The pandemic has changed the way we work,” Dunleavy said. “More people are working remotely, but they depend on reliable, fast broadband service that isn’t available in many parts of Alaska. By deploying high-quality service to all, we are going to unlock a large cohort of Alaskans who can help fill jobs.”

Edgmon said his legislation builds on the work done by the governor’s Task Force on Broadband last year. Getting high-speed internet to all corners of Alaska will transform the state, almost like electricity once did long ago, he said.

The new state broadband office will oversee the deployment of some of the federal infrastructure money, expected to approach $1 billion, said Lisa Von Bargen, senior project manager for the state’s Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, who is helping set up the office.

Among other duties, it will work on coordinating and engaging tribes and local governments, many with their own plans and grants. It will also work with schools and colleges to promote workforce training, focus on streamlining permitting, and consider recommendations from an advisory board that will include business, educational and health care leaders.

It could be seven years before some projects at completed, but now is the time to plan, Von Bargen said.

“I know everyone is super excited, but we need to buckle down and figure out how to get broadband deployed in the state,” she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who helped negotiate the infrastructure bill last year, said one key will be working together to lower costs. The federal government is providing money to help pay for the broadband office, she said.

“There is so much to capitalize on that is good, and it will come as we all work together,” 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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