Opinions

OPINION: Greater connectivity will help Alaskans at home and strengthen America’s Arctic

This past week, two important events occurred in Anchorage that signify a positive and dramatic change in the direction for all the communities in our state, and our country as well.

First, on Thursday, we stood up the U.S. Department of Defense Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Studies, the world’s leading Arctic think tank, which will serve as a new focal point for strategic thinking, as it combines Alaska’s extensive reserve of Arctic expertise with the best and brightest minds from around the world.

Second, we convened a broadband summit, which brought up to our state senior-level federal officials who are overseeing the billions of dollars of broadband funds that are coming to Alaska to coordinate with state, local, tribal and industry leaders. Both before and after the summit, these federal officials traveled to Fairbanks, Tanana, Kodiak, Bethel, Napaskiak and Napakiak, to witness firsthand our unique challenges in connecting Alaska to 21st-century infrastructure.

I want to thank the dozens of Alaskans who took part in the broadband summit and the launch of the Ted Stevens Center.

How do these events relate and how do they signify a change our state? First, the Ted Stevens Center is a piece of a larger effort to cement Alaska as the center of gravity for America’s Arctic security operations, policy and research.

It also signifies a huge advancement in the Pentagon’s thinking about the Arctic. When I first arrived at the Senate seven years ago, our country’s Arctic strategy consisted of a 13-page document. It was more pictures than text, and it mentioned climate change five times and Russia only once — in a footnote.

Through relentless advocacy from the congressional delegation, allies within Pentagon, and our dedicated military service members — each of whom personify the term “Arctic Tough” — we were able to shift this thinking and, at long last, the Department of Defense has awakened to the strategic importance of the Arctic.

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From my seat on the Armed Services Committee, we’ve been able to secure roughly $2 billion for our state in military construction. As a result, Alaska is now the cornerstone of our nation’s missile defense, the hub of air combat power for the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic, as well as a vital expeditionary platform for some of America’s best-trained troops. We are making significant progress in the decades-long dream of building a deep-water strategic port in Nome, and we were able to authorize six polar-class icebreakers in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

With the Ted Stevens Center, we will add to this impressive list the intellectual capital to focus on Arctic security — and it will rightly be a center located in America’s Arctic.

What we lack, however — both to fully realize our potential as the center of gravity for Arctic security, and to realize our full potential economically and socially — is better and more reliable broadband internet connectivity. We are on the cusp of changing that, as well.

In the next five years, Alaska will be receiving billions of federal broadband dollars from different federal agencies, in part due to the bipartisan infrastructure bill that we passed last year and the Federal Communications Commission’s Alaska Plan.

Alaska is resource rich but infrastructure poor. Broadband connectivity is 21st-century infrastructure, but Alaska is the least connected of any state in the country, by far. With these funds, the goal of connecting all of Alaska — every community, town, and village — is within reach.

Coordination, however, is key. That’s why I convened a summit in Anchorage recently that brought together senior federal officials overseeing broadband funds to coordinate with state, local and tribal leaders, and industry, to ensure that, as we work to connect Alaska, there are no duplication of services, nor any waste or abuse, and that our unique challenges are understood and taken into account.

Alaskans know that we are a resource-rich, infrastructure-poor state, and that we have vital needs for traditional infrastructure, like roads, bridges and ports. But broadband and internet connectivity are the kinds of 21st-century infrastructure that will open up different, but equally important, opportunities for our state. Apart from the military applications, think about what connecting all of Alaska can do in terms of education or tele-health or small-business development — and for our standard of living. The opportunities are endless.

We need to connect our state to realize our great potential — to attract the best and brightest, and, importantly, to cultivate the next generation here and now — and to keep them here. That work is beginning and the summit was an important start.

To step back and paint a broader picture, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine as well as China’s aggressive actions in the Taiwan Strait signals that we have entered a new era of authoritarian aggression led by the dictators of these countries, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Alaska and the Arctic have an enormous role to play in ensuring that America prevails in this new era of dictatorships versus democracies. We have world-class energy and mineral resources. We have the most strategic location on the planet. And, we have the best military and the most lethal fighters anywhere. The progress we made recently, in connecting our state to broadband infrastructure and the dedication of the Ted Stevens Center, will both improve economic opportunities for Alaskans and position our state as the center of strength for America’s national security interests in the Arctic and beyond.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, first elected in 2014, is Alaska’s junior U.S. senator.

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Dan Sullivan

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