Alaska Legislature

Facing deadline, Alaska House advances bill to increase rural school internet speeds

JUNEAU — The Alaska House early Thursday advanced legislation to increase internet speeds at schools, primarily in rural Alaska.

House Bill 193 would allow eligible schools to apply for grants to boost their download speeds to 100 megabits per second, a four-fold increase over what is available under current law. The same internet provision was included in the bipartisan education package vetoed last week by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Wednesday saw a marathon House floor session, with eight bills debated. HB 193 passed shortly after midnight on a 36-4 vote. Republican Reps. David Eastman, Sarah Vance, Will Stapp and Julie Coulombe voted no.

Legislators have been racing to pass a broadband bill because schools have a March 27 deadline to finalize applications.

“I can’t stress enough again, the appreciation that we’re moving very quickly on this, because next Wednesday is a hard and fast deadline for school districts,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, a Dillingham independent.

Other rural legislators expressed strong support for the bill.

Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk said, “This is good for kids,” and added, “We are in a timeline and we want to get this fast.”


Alaska’s broadband assistance program was established in 2014 to help fund faster internet for schools. The Legislature has incrementally increased download speeds available for funding to 25 mbps. Federal grants typically match state dollars 8 to 1.

With legislation in limbo, the Alaska Education Department last month advised schools to apply for both 25 mbps and 100 mbps. That way, eligible schools could ensure they receive funding this year.

The state spent $6.6 million last year to provide 25 mbps download speeds at 151 schools in 27 school districts. The cost to the state to increase speeds to 100 mbps was estimated at $40 million per year, but Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association, said that figure is unreliable.

“The (Education Department) has done a linear estimate and just taken the amount of cost now and said, ‘OK, it’s four times the speed, so we’re going to increase it by four times, which is not how internet pricing works,” she said last month.

O’Connor said association members estimated roughly last year that 100 mpbs could potentially cost the state an extra $15 million annually.

The Democrat-dominated House minority and three non-Republican majority members requested that HB 193 advance Thursday. After a GOP-led House majority meeting, the bill was added to the floor calendar with support from a majority of House members. It was heard late Wednesday evening.

Rep. Ben Carpenter, a Nikiski Republican, proposed an amendment that was rejected on a 30-10 vote. It was intended to allow for satellite internet services to be considered as an alternative if they cost less than accessing a fiber network. He spoke about the high costs the state pays for internet access at rural schools.

”But if that’s acceptable for our school districts to have to pay (that) for internet, then I think we should probably be asking some different questions,” he said.

Edgmon opposed Carpenter’s amendment. He said he understood the idea behind it. But the impacts had not been vetted and the March 27 deadline was too close to take a risk, he said.

Stapp said he tried to craft a similar amendment, but it clashed with the current, complicated appropriation process. He said Carpenter’s amendment, which also lifted the 100 mbps funding cap, could result in rural schools being shortchanged in favor of urban schools.

Supporters of HB 193 say the measure is needed because Alaska could miss out on substantial federal funding this year.

Lisa Parady, director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, said roughly 25 of 53 Alaska school districts had filed applications for 100 mbps. She said some schools could expect faster internet in fairly short order because of substantial federal broadband investment.

Around $2 billion in federal funding has been invested in recent years to expand broadband access in Alaska. New internet infrastructure has been funded in Western Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Southeast .

“Anywhere where you’re seeing these major new fiber projects coming online, then those providers are able to deliver faster speeds very quickly,” O’Connor said Wednesday.

Alaska ranks last among states for internet coverage, speed and reliability. The Federal Communications Commission this month said modern broadband networks should provide at least 100 mbps download speeds.

”It’s fundamentally a principle of equity,” Parady said about the digital divide between urban and rural Alaska. “Geography in Alaska should not determine access and opportunities. And that is exactly what happens when we don’t have appropriate connectivity for kids.”

School administrators in Western Alaska say slow download speeds can create significant challenges, including needing to ration internet access and interruptions to state testing.


“As a result, we must stagger testing start times and for the most part, only test one classroom at a time, which not only disrupts the normal flow of the school day for weeks but also hinders opportunities for advanced instruction,” said Jennifer Eller, educational technology coordinator at Bering Strait School District, which encompasses schools in Shaktoolik, Koyuk and Golovin.

Kodiak Republican Senate President Gary Stevens on Wednesday said the Senate planned to quickly pass the one-page bill to meet the March 27 deadline. Stevens said adding other education elements to the bill would ensure it was vetoed by Dunleavy.

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at