Opinions

OPINION: Only tribes can bridge the rural Alaska digital divide

There are two Alaskas. Most of us live in or near one of our major metropolitan areas. We experience good internet and cellphone service that can be depended on. If you live there, imagine a day or a week without access (affordable or not). Now, imagine many more years without it.

This is the reality for more than 200 rural and mostly tribal communities that currently are not even connected to an electric grid or a road system, let alone have access to affordable broadband and related services. But it does not have to be this way. Tribes have the power to shape their own digital destiny.

There are billions being made available to bring broadband to rural tribal communities in America. Through grant funding, Alaska tribes can control long-term, affordable broadband service by joining together to build and own a statewide, satellite-based Alaska Tribal Network. However, the federal government’s “one size fits all” approach preferring fiber for broadband grant approvals does not serve this goal or consider the unique needs of rural Alaska.

Current federal broadband language repeatedly prioritizes fiber infrastructure over other solutions. Given the unique off-grid and isolated nature of many Alaska communities as well as other geographic and environmental challenges, this bias will unnecessarily leave tens of thousands of Alaskans without any broadband for generations to come.

We need to connect our remote villages as quickly as possible using satellites. There is no argument that with an unlimited multibillion-dollar budget, a fiber connection to every village can provide the most capacity, however a fiber solution is just not possible for these communities anytime soon. Why should these communities wait several more generations for the perfect terrestrial solution when they can install robust tribal village networks connected with satellite broadband now?

New satellite technology is the only thing that can close the digital divide in Alaska in the short-term. However, the word “satellite” does not appear in the government’s broadband final rule language. Recent applications for satellite-based solutions in Alaska have been turned down stating that the satellite technology is not capable of providing fast enough service. This is not correct.

If you were forced to use satellite service in the past, that was the Stone Age. Next-generation satellite broadband service is possible now in Alaska via OneWeb, and soon it will be augmented with massive affordable capacity from firms like Starlink, SES and others. This satellite service is often indistinguishable from land-based solutions and represents life-changing service for these communities.

Alaska tribes need to use government grant dollars to build and own standards-based networks in every village using recently awarded tribal 2.5 GHz wireless spectrum to distribute the satellite broadband across each village now. This will bridge the next decade to provide statewide relief with village wide cell phone and broadband coverage at home or on the move, including making 911 calls in an emergency. This also satisfies the FCC requirement to use the 2.5 GHZ tribal spectrum soon, so it is not forfeited.

These advanced last mile village networks also set the stage for future expansion. Should fiber become available and affordable at any point, it simply plugs into an already thriving local network, and a good solution becomes a great solution.

State and federal government grant evaluators need to understand that “preferring” satellite over fiber is the only way to address the unique challenges over the next decade while awaiting more traditional wired solutions for almost 200 remote rural Alaska communities. A satellite solution can also serve these populations at generally 10 times lower cost than building fiber, which allows many more currently unserved Alaskans to be reached with available funds.

Tribes in Alaska can control their own “Broadband for All” digital future in a truly tribal effort. Alaskans need to raise their voices with their legislators and regional leaders to help grant evaluators understand that Alaska is different. Satellite for remote Alaska is the only possible solution for broadband relief that won’t continue to leave many more generations unserved.

Teresa Jacobsson is founder and chair of the Alaska Tribal Administrators Association.

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