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Alaska’s Can-Do Approach to Telecommunications

From telegraph to broadband


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Overcoming the challenges of connecting Alaskans scattered in remote communities to each other and to the rest of the world has required both technological ingenuity and a commitment to provide service where networks are costly to build and maintain and customers are few. However, the story of connecting Alaskans involves much more than technological innovation and geographical challenges of vast distances and extreme climate—it includes advocacy by government agencies and the private sector, innovative strategies to attract investment, persistence by Alaska politicians and entrepreneurs, and creative techniques of putting telecommunications to use for Alaska’s development.

“Connecting Alaskans: Telecommunications in Alaska from Telegraph to Broadband” is a book I wrote that was published last year. This article is a snapshot of the book, which highlights the technologies, investments, and ingenuity that have helped to link Alaskans with each other and with the outside world. In the book and this article, I also analyze the technical, policy, and regulatory issues that Alaskans have faced from the first telegraph line to the broadband era and highlights some of the lessons learned and issues that still need to be addressed.

 

Linking Alaskans

After an aborted private sector venture in the 1860s to construct a telegraph line from the United States and then-British west coast through Russian Alaska and Siberia to Europe, it was thirty-five years before a telegraph line would actually be built across Alaska. Led by Captain Billy Mitchell, the US military overcame obstacles of frozen tundra in the winter and muskeg and mosquitoes in the summer to build a telegraph line to link its garrisons, initially relying on a link through the Yukon to reach Skagway, where messages were sent by ship to Seattle. Eventually, submarine cables were laid from southeast Alaska to Washington State to complete an all US route.

First known as WAMCATS (the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System) and later ACS (the Alaska Communication System), the military’s network carried both civilian and military traffic, but was owned and operated by the military until privatized by an Act of Congress in 1969, and sold to RCA (the Radio Corporation of America). Thus, for much of the twentieth century, Alaska’s communications system resembled government-owned networks in Europe rather than the commercially-owned and operated networks in the United States. Like European operators, the ACS received federal government allocations for operations and maintenance and could not re-invest its own revenues but had to turn them over to the US Treasury. Despite growth in Alaska’s population and economy, there was little incentive for the military to upgrade and expand facilities for civilian services. However, World War II and the Cold War did provide the rationale and funding to improve military communications, with new technologies such as the White Alice troposcatter system and the US portion of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line built to enhance national security on the northern Pacific and Arctic frontiers.

 

Reliable Communications

In the Bush, high frequency radios had been the only link between most villages and doctors, police, and government agencies. These two-way radios were often both unreliable and inaccessible. In the early 1970s, experiments using NASA’s ATS-1 satellite to link Alaska village clinics to regional hospitals demonstrated that reliable voice communications could make a difference in rural healthcare, not only to get help in emergencies but also to enable doctors at regional hospitals to advise village health aides on diagnosis and treatment of their patients. Educators and broadcasters also experimented with the NASA satellites to transmit community radio programs and educational videos to schools and community centers. Participants in these experiments became advocates for permanent satellite facilities for all of Alaska’s remote communities. Yet demonstrations and experiments were short-term; turning them into stepping stones to operational service required the commitment and ingenuity of federal and state government officials, Alaska business leaders, and researchers. Their efforts culminated in an appropriation by the Alaska Legislature in 1975 of $5 million for the purchase of satellite earth stations for more than one hundred villages; the satellite facilities were installed and operated by RCA Alascom.

In the 1970s and 1980s, state communications officials and consultants helped Alaska carriers gain access to a national revenue pool that could subsidize costs of providing service in Alaska, thereby helping to keep communications affordable for Alaska residents. Despite Alaska’s small markets and high capital and operating costs, competition began in interstate long distance, followed by intrastate and eventually some local competition. Deregulation and disruption in the 1980s led to turmoil in the industry in the 1990s that became known as the “phone wars.” By the end of the decade, mobile cellular service was being installed, with expansion and upgrading of mobile services throughout the early years of the new century.

With the advent of the Internet era in the late 1990s, Alaska was once more a communications pioneer in offering online access to state government services ranging from hunting and fishing licenses to applications for annual Permanent Fund disbursements. Alaskans began to sell products online and to promote wilderness activities and ecotourism through their websites. Alaska’s resource industries, aviation and shipping, and retail and service industries now use telecommunications networks for logistics, back office support, reservation systems, financial transactions, and other applications.

 

Recurring Themes

Several themes recur through this review and analysis of Alaska’s telecommunications history. The Alaska experience also yields lessons relevant for future Alaska communications planning and policy, for other remote areas across the North, and in other rural and developing regions.

 

Innovations in Technology

A major theme has been adoption of innovative technological solutions to cope with Alaska’s climate, terrain, and isolation. A submarine cable across Norton Sound that kept breaking from the pressures of waves and sea ice was replaced with one of the world’s first commercial wireless circuits. Further innovations in wireless technology brought the means to extend the networks, with White Alice troposcatter antennas and microwave relay towers. But it was satellite technology that made reliable communications for all of Alaska’s settlements not only possible but achievable when innovative engineers designed small earth stations that could be assembled from components flown to villages in bush planes. Today, planners attempting to extend broadband to every community face similar challenges to power mountaintop repeaters and lay optical fiber across tundra and under grinding coastal ice.

Technological innovation was also critical to the introduction of competition in Alaska telecommunications. Carriers that estimated costs based on technology and practices used in the Lower 48 concluded that competition in Alaska’s small market was impossible. However, innovations in satellite technology in the 1970s that were adapted for Alaska resulted in costs that were significantly lower than estimates from the major carriers.

 

Innovative Uses and Applications

From the earliest days, Alaskans have also been innovative in how they use communications technologies. They sent messages via radio broadcasts and two-way radio to isolated villages, used a shared audio channel on a satellite to implement telemedicine, obtained rights to educational programs for teachers to download overnight, enabled rural Alaskans to testify in state hearings via teleconference, marketed Alaska crafts and other products online, and developed software to preserve and teach indigenous languages.

 

The Importance of Advocacy

Many of the regulatory and policy victories that made it possible to extend reliable communications to remote villages for Alaskans resulted from engagement of key officials from both the public and private sectors. The political initiatives were bipartisan, involving Democratic and Republican governors, senators, and state legislators. Governors Egan and Hammond were committed to getting affordable satellite communications to rural Alaska. Senators Bartlett, Gravel, and Stevens also played significant roles in Alaska telecommunications, including setting the terms for the sale for ACS, arranging Alaska participation in NASA satellite experiments, and obtaining federal funding to support Alaska communications.

Private sector and academic champions have also helped to expand and improve Alaska communications. Broadcaster Augie Hiebert first traveled to Washington, DC, in 1946. In the 1970s, he led initiatives to get satellite television to rural Alaska; he also organized “Alaska Day” at the Federal Communications Commission so that Alaska broadcasters could showcase their activities and explain their needs for regulatory waivers and exemptions. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Stanford, and other institutions advised on technology and regulatory issues, providing the evidence the state needed to advance its agenda of extending rural communications.

 

Public-Private Partnerships

Partnerships between the private sector and the government have been important at several stages in Alaska’s telecommunications history. Private sector contractors supplied equipment and built facilities for the military’s ACS and White Alice systems. In the 1970s, the state government appropriated funds for the purchase of one hundred small satellite earth stations that were installed and operated by RCA Alascom. The state also provided funds to lease satellite capacity for transmission of a single channel of commercial and public broadcasting to the Bush, a system now known as ARCS (Alaska Rural Communications Service) that continues to operate today.

 

State Planning

Governor Egan established an Office of Telecommunications in 1972. The Office of Telecommunications became a focal point for identifying goals and developing strategies to improve access to telecommunications, particularly in rural Alaska. Governor Hammond eventually abolished the Office of Telecommunications and placed responsibility for telecommunications operations and services in the Department of Administration, where the focus shifted to internal government telecommunications requirements rather than the needs of the state’s residents. Some legislators also played important roles, notably Fred Brown and later “Red” Boucher chaired committees concerned with Alaska communications. The Telecommunications Information Council established by Boucher and later chaired by Lieutenant Governor Fran Ulmer once again provided a focal point for setting goals and determining priorities until its abolition in 2005 by Governor Murkowski. In 2015, a State Broadband Task Force recommended the establishment of an Office of Broadband Policy within the state government. The state clearly needs to reengage at a senior level in telecommunications planning and policy.

 

Role of the Federal Government

The federal government has played many significant roles in Alaska telecommunications. The military both funded and operated the facilities that provided commercial communications services until 1969. Threats to national security prompted construction of the White Alice troposcatter network and the DEW Line. NASA satellites demonstrated the benefits of this new technology for reaching remote communities and provided the evidence state officials needed to make the case for investment in commercial satellite facilities. Federal loans for rural phone companies helped cooperatives and small “mom and pop” companies to install local networks and later to upgrade their facilities; federal subsidies for high cost services have helped Alaska carriers to survive while keeping services affordable for their customers.

Alaska’s telecommunications providers and users have also benefited significantly from federal universal service funds. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated connectivity subsidies for schools and libraries and for rural health centers. Alaska soon had the highest percentage of participating schools in the country, most of which were in isolated villages where they connected to the Internet via satellite. Today, Alaska remains one the highest per capita beneficiaries of the Schools and Libraries Program, also known as the “E-rate.” Alaska now receives the largest absolute amount of funding as well as highest allocation per capita of any state from the Rural Health Care program. Today, the focus of federal subsidies to providers is on extending affordable access to broadband, with new subsidy regimes being introduced as part of the implementation of the National Broadband Plan. In the fifteen years from 1998 to 2013, Alaska received a total of almost $3 billion from these funds, or 3 percent of the total awarded, despite having only 0.23 percent of the US population.

 

Special Treatment for Alaska

Alaskans have frequently sought—and received—special treatment from federal regulators. Broadcaster Augie Hiebert was able to get a license for a high powered FM station in Prudhoe Bay to rebroadcast an AM station from Anchorage because “things are different in Alaska.” The Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission managed to get village transmitters affiliated with all four television networks so that the villages could receive a single state-funded satellite channel with combined network programming. Recently, Alaska carriers have sought waivers from some requirements mandated under implementation of the Connect America Fund.

 

Competition and Consolidation

The telecommunications industry was long considered to be a natural monopoly; it appeared that its services could be provided most cost-effectively by one integrated provider. Technological innovations beginning in the 1960s gradually eroded this paradigm, resulting in competition ranging from customer premises equipment (such as fax machines and modems) to satellite systems. Competition in services began with early data communications and expanded to long distance communications and eventually to local services. In Alaska, the rationale for monopoly was based primarily on the high capital and operating costs of reaching customers scattered over a vast land area and the limited revenues from a small population. However, entrepreneurs who introduced innovations in satellite technology, and later in digital and mobile communications, demonstrated that competition could succeed even in rural Alaska.

Much of this competition has been facilities-based, with separate satellite earth stations and cellular antenna towers installed by each carrier. Recently, there appears to be a new era of consolidation in both fixed and wireless services, with a single carrier providing a terrestrial backbone network in some rural regions, and buyouts resulting in fewer players in mobile networks.

 

Native and Consumer Engagement

In the 1970s a consumer advocacy organization included communications in the issues it researched and publicized. In the 1980s, there was a Telecommunications Users Advisory Consortium. Today, consumers and other users are virtually silent about the availability, affordability, and quality of service of their communications services. There is no organization representing communications consumers in Alaska, ranging from individual residents to small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and social and educational services.

In addition, few Alaska Natives are engaged in representing their needs as consumers of communications content and services. Yet as the majority of residents in much of rural Alaska, Native Alaskans should be particularly concerned about the availability and affordability of telecommunications services.

 

Ongoing Challenges

Innovation, advocacy, and perseverance have been key to Alaska’s achievements in telecommunications. Rural Alaskans continue to adopt new technologies and services as they become available in their communities. Most villages now have cellular service, although coverage remains limited offshore and on the land and rivers where emergency communications in harsh weather could save lives. But there is still much more to do, including extension of fixed and mobile broadband services throughout the state and engagement of all Alaskans in Alaska communications planning and policy. The goal of providing universal access to broadband that is both affordable for users and sustainable for providers is the latest Alaska communications challenge.

 

 

This article first appeared in the March 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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