Broadband Task Force Releases Report
The latest task force on broadband internet in Alaska could be the last, if policymakers follow a recommendation to create a state government office to handle the job permanently. The proposed Office of Broadband Deployment is one of the actionable recommendations in the final report, released on Friday, from the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband.
Connect Every Alaskan
The twelve-member panel began its work in July, after being formed by Governor Mike Dunleavy, building on the work of previous task forces in 2009 and 2014, work that was further updated by the Denali Commission in 2019. Since then, the report notes that bandwidth needs have increased with the swift adoption of video meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The immediate goal, according to the report, is to ensure that every Alaska household has access to minimal broadband service, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as 25 megabit-per-second (Mbps) download speeds, 3 Mpbs upload. The FCC’s Broadband Deployment Report in January 2021 found that 14.8 percent of Alaskans do not have such access. Deployment has increased—the 2019 report had nearly 18 percent unserved—but the gap remains. FCC estimates 36.3 percent of Alaskans in rural areas lack minimal broadband.
The unserved area includes towns as large as Bethel, Delta Junction, Dillingham, and Unalaska. The task force report notes that the true figure could be even worse, since the FCC counts a single household having service as covering an entire census block, which can span 5,000 square miles. That counting method has recently changed, but updated results are not expected until late 2022.
Approximately 13,000 Alaskans statewide are already on track to receive minimum service soon, with broadband projects underway. Furthermore, low-Earth orbit satellite connections are becoming available, with SpaceX Starlink expected to provide service directly to homes in Alaska sometime in 2022.
Minimum service would still leave many Alaskans in the FCC’s “underserved” category, defined as at least 100 Mpbs download, 20 Mbps upload. The task force report sets a goal of giving every Alaskan this level of service within five years. That compares, for example, to the 2 gigabit-per-second service available in Anchorage—eighty times faster than minimum broadband.
The task force determined that middle-mile connectivity, or backhaul, which connects communities to core networks, must be up to broadband standards in order for end users to benefit.
To help facilitate the buildout, the task force recommends establishing an Office of Broadband Deployment within state government, at first by executive order of the governor and eventually by law enacted by the legislature. The office would collaborate with another new body, a State Broadband Advisory Board, which would represent stakeholders outside of government, similar to the task force itself.
The office would be responsible for implementing some of the task force’s other policy recommendations, such as streamlining permits for broadband infrastructure projects. The office might also administer a Broadband Parity Adjustment, a subsidy like the existing Power Cost Equalization program, to ensure affordable service in the most remote communities. Whether the subsidy is paid for by utility fee structures or a dedicated endowment fund, the task force leaves for policymakers to decide.
Accepting the report on Friday, Governor Dunleavy noted that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could bring up to $1.5 billion to Alaska to help bridge the gaps identified by the task force. He concludes, “And now the work of connecting every Alaskan begins.”
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.