BETHEL — First lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made a quick but historic trip to Bethel on Wednesday to tout massive federal investments in fiber broadband in a remote region where internet service is considered some of the poorest in the U.S.
The first lady and Haaland made the stop on Biden’s way to Japan’s G-7 summit, where President Joe Biden is also headed. Earlier in the day, the president’s jet made a refueling stop in Anchorage before his wife visited Bethel, 400 miles to the west.
Jill Biden’s trip to the Western Alaska community of 6,000 was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to highlight its infrastructure investments nationwide as the president gears up for another run for the White House.
The weather when the first lady touched down in Bethel was cold and windy, but she received a warm standing ovation from hundreds of cheering residents at the town’s packed high school gymnasium.
She told the crowd that the region has received more than $100 million in federal broadband grants, generating cheers and applause.
“With high-speed internet, you’ll have better access to critical health care, new educational tools and remote job opportunities,” she said. “It will change lives. It will save lives.”
She said even more money has been spent statewide.
Two federal agencies, the Commerce and Agriculture departments, have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to improve broadband connectivity across Alaska over the past two years, in part with money from the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, observers in the industry say.
But that’s barely meeting the need in the state. The Alaska Broadband Office says close to 200 Alaska communities lack modern, high-speed internet. It roughly estimates that close to $2 billion will be needed to extend fiber statewide.
[Previous coverage: Alaska internet ‘gold rush’: Billions could be headed to rural communities to close the digital divide]
Bethel, the jumping-off point for dozens of Yup’ik villages that are accessible by small airplane or boat, is one of the last regional hubs in Alaska without a high-speed fiber connection. Instead, internet signals typically arrive through microwave transmitters on more than 100 towers stretching over mountains and tundra.
Residents say it’s painfully slow, glitchy and expensive, and hurts economic development and access to services that much of the rest of the nation enjoys. They say it makes hard to transfer large files, such as medical records, or download movies for entertainment.
As an example of the limited service, Bethel city officials said the city last week loaned a dozen unused cellphones to Secret Service agents who arrived in town to prepare for the first lady’s visit — their out-of-state cellphones wouldn’t work.
Some are increasingly turning to satellite-based internet service such as Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk. That can often get interrupted throughout the day, but it’s an affordable alternative as they wait for broadband to arrive, they say.
Before Biden’s arrival, scores of residents stopped their cars and trucks along the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway to greet her motorcade. They took pictures and waved. Two men and a dog stood atop a four-wheeler along a nearby trail.
During her speech, Biden was flanked by Alaska Native leaders who had come to greet her at the airport, including Alaska Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola. Dancers from the local Yup’ik immersion school, wearing fur-lined headdresses, held up signs behind her that said “Investing in Alaska.” Homemade welcome signs also decorated the walls and bleachers with words like, “We love FLOTUS,” a reference to the first lady of the United States.
During her speech, Biden highlighted $73 million in grants that were awarded last year to the Bethel Native Corp. and telecommunications company GCI to deliver fiber cable to 10 villages and more than 10,000 people by the end of next year.
That so-called Airraq Network project is named after a traditional string game in the region that’s similar to cat’s cradle. Pronounced with a guttural “i-huck” in the local Yup’ik language, airraq translates to “string that tells the story.”
“I love the name that you’ve chosen for it,” Biden told the crowd.
The region has also received a $53 million grant awarded last year to Alaska Communications and Calista Corp., the regional Alaska Native corporation, to extend fiber to seven other villages in the Bethel region.
Biden said she made a stopover visit in Alaska two years ago, and learned about the close ties of Alaskans and tribes during a trip to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.
She said the experience was central to the administration’s investments in the region, she said.
“And yet, I also learned about the challenges you face, and how communities in rural areas like this one often feel unseen and unappreciated for their unique contributions to our country,” Biden said. “I took those stories home with me. I told them to my husband, Joe. And he listened.”
Before Biden spoke, local leaders took the stage to talk about the region’s broadband shortcomings. They raised other pressing problems, like crashing salmon runs and a lack of running water and sewer in many communities, another problem that’s also getting giant federal investments from the infrastructure act. Many households in the region still use buckets instead of toilets.
Alaska’s first lady, Rose Dunleavy, also spoke. She said the broadband investments in the region will create lots of jobs.
“Rural Alaska has always been on the wrong side of the digital divide until today,” she said.
Haaland, making her second official visit to Alaska as Interior secretary, said people are deprived of opportunities when they don’t have access to modern internet services. The projects in the region are helping usher in a new era, she said.
After the event, residents said they hope the attention to the region brings in new federal support.
Audience member Thad Tikiun Jr., chair of the Association of Village Council Presidents, said Bethel has never had such a high-profile visitor, referring to the first lady.
“This is the first time anyone that important has come out here,” he said. “So we hope it will bring more support to our region for things that people have been wishing for for years.”