Rural Alaskans used to costly or clunky Internet service – including teachers who sometimes sweep snow off satellite dishes for a signal – might not be surprised to hear that a new nationwide report from the Federal Communications Commission shows Alaska trailing most of the nation when it comes to Internet speed.
"It's not very good and it's very expensive, like everything else out here," said Richard Spencer, a technology liaison and the math teacher at the Kalskag village high school in Southwest Alaska.
Nearly 400 miles west of Anchorage, the school relies on a satellite-based Internet system that's achingly slow. Downloading even simple programs is a daily battle, including basic Carnegie Learning courses.
"Two students couldn't get on today," said Spencer on Friday. "They sat here for a while and wasted time until I had them work on other assignments."
Similar delays are widespread across Alaska, according to the FCC report, with nearly 40 percent of residents lacking access to modern broadband services that include high-quality voice, data and video offerings.
The problem is acute in rural Alaska, with 81 percent of residents lacking access to service that meets today's speed requirements, the report said. Only Vermont, Montana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas are worse in rural areas.
That compares to 17 percent of all Americans and more than half of all rural residents nationwide, said the report.
"It's bringing awareness of the status and it's a call to everyone to see if we can step it up a bit," said Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman.
To keep up with technology, the FCC has updated its national benchmark speed to 25 megabits per second for downloads, an increase from the "dated" standard of 4 megabits in 2010. The report relied on the new benchmark to measure performance.
The Kalskag school can download 2 megabits a second, said Spencer. "We already can't take a field trip to the museum and some of the students have no idea what a sidewalk is because they have never been to a city," he said. "So this is just one more challenge to their education."
The FCC summary also set a benchmark for an upload speed of 3 megabits per second, an increase from 1 megabit in 2010. The report – Broadband Availability in America -- pointed out that people living in states with the lowest population densities are 10 times more likely than other Americans to not meet the benchmarks.
When it comes to population density, Alaska is more challenged than any other state, with more than 200 far-flung villages unconnected by road. With the state's rugged geography, distance from the original signal in the Lower 48, and big swaths of federally protected land with steep permitting hurdles, Alaska is a challenging place to boost Internet speeds, said David Morris, vice president with GCI.
In an effort to boost rural service, the company has launched the most ambitious program in the state, with a fiber line strung between Homer and the Southwest Alaska village of Levelock giving way to a series of microwave towers and repeaters that carry the signal to dozens of villages as far as Northwest Alaska.
Meanwhile, Alaska Communications, another broadband provider, is investing in improved Internet service in many rural areas to support education, health and businesses, said a statement from CEO Anand Vadapalli.
That includes bringing broadband to Old Harbor and other remote communities on Kodiak Island, and working with businesses and organizations across the state such as Chugachmiut. The tribal consortium serves Native communities with health and social services and Alaska Communications is working to improve service in clinics in Port Graham, Nanwalek, Seward and other locations, the statement said.
Still, rural Internet can be slow. Myron Naneng, head of the Association of Village Council Presidents, representing more than 50 tribal governments, said many villages send paperwork through the mail or through fax machines because the connection is so poor.
"When the Internet first came out here, everyone wanted it," he said. "Now we complain it's too slow."
Bill Popp, chair of the Alaska Broadband Task Force, said about $1 billion will be needed if the state is to meet the task force's recently announced goal of broadband speeds statewide of 100 megabits per second by 2020.
The task force released that goal and others – including creation of a state office to focus on solutions – in a report last fall. The task force report has been submitted to lawmakers and the governor's office, but the group hasn't heard back.
With state leaders struggling to deal with a multibillion-dollar deficit because of low oil prices, and with a new administration and Legislature getting underway, Popp said he wasn't expecting a response yet.
"If I don't hear from someone at some point, I'll be asking," he said. "We'll do our best to educate the administration, the Legislature and the public in terms of recommendations."
Improving Internet speeds across the state would lead to increased economic opportunities for small businesses, improvements to public safety and more access for education opportunities, among other benefits, he said.
"There are schools in Alaska that basically have to shut down the connection at night to download videos so the teacher can have lessons for next day's class," he said.
That's not a problem in Stony River village on the other side of the Alaska Range from Anchorage, where the lone teacher's tasks include wading through snow to sweep off the satellite dish if it gets too deep, or covering part of the dish with plastic to protect against ashfall when volcanoes rumble.
Solar flares can also stop service, said Debi Rubera, the teacher at the all-grades school.
But with only six or so students at any given time looking to use the Internet, it's easy to work around disruptions.
"If it doesn't come on, it's back to the old-fashioned way -- books and pencils," she said.