More Federal Cash for Rural Broadband

Aug 11, 2022 | Alaska Native, Government, News, Telecom & Tech

Broadband

SEAN MACENTEE LICENSED UNDER CC BY 2.0

Federal, state, tribal, and business partners are revving up efforts to connect rural Alaska households to high-speed internet.

River of Data

At an Internet for All roundtable in Fairbanks this week, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded two grants as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. The grants totaling approximately $51 million are split between Doyon, Limited and the Ahtna Intertribal Resource Commission.

Doyon is using its share on a collaboration with Alaska Communications to bring fiber-optic service to one of the most underserved regions in the United States: namely, the central Yukon River. The communities slated for connection include Fort Yukon, Beaver, Stevens Village, Rampart, and Tanana, with 581 households among them.

“Doyon looks to use this project as a backbone of connectivity and continue bringing our villages online,” says the regional corporation’s President and CEO Aaron Schutt. “For generations the river has been a transportation hub, and we look forward to continue the tradition of bringing information and goods across our river system.”

Alaska Communications will deploy a fiber-to-the-home network in each community, offering up to Gigabit speed service. The network will connect to the Alaska Communications’ core fiber network in Fairbanks.

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“This is an exciting milestone for Alaska,” says Bill Bishop, president and CEO of Alaska Communications. “We’re honored to work with our partners on a project that will be life-changing for many Alaskans.”

The project is part of the Alaska FiberOptic Project, a larger collaboration between Alaska Communications, Doyon, Calista Corporation, and Gana-A‘Yoo Limited to connect up to twenty communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers with fiber-optic cable. This segment is the first of three segments to get funding.

“Alaska’s geography, terrain, climate, and vast size have created significant obstacles to developing broadband infrastructure. But rural Alaska is no less deserving of connectivity,” says Senator Lisa Murkowski.

She notes that the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program was contained in the Consolidated Appropriations Act that Congress passed in December 2020. That bill made $980 million available for grants to eligible Native entities for broadband deployment nationwide. Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture awarded $116 million to Alaska to improve high-speed internet access in rural communities.

“Many of our rural, Alaska Native communities for too long have found themselves without the broadband connectivity that most Americans take for granted,” says Senator Dan Sullivan. “I applaud NTIA for awarding these significant grants to help break down the digital divide in our state and improve the lives and well-being of Alaskans.”

Alaska Communications will begin the permit and construction process as quickly as possible. It will also offer a $75/month discount for households on qualifying Tribal lands through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Digital Equality

A day before the roundtable in Fairbanks, a new state law established a mechanism to help collect and distribute federal broadband funding

Governor Mike Dunleavy signed House Bill 363, which enacts many of the recommendations his Task Force on Broadband made in a report last fall. The bill creates an Office of Broadband within the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development. It also creates a Statewide Broadband Advisory Board with fifteen members, plus a working group of technical experts. The bill also establishes a broadband parity adjustment fund, meant to subsidize service in high-cost areas, although it does not directly endow it with any money.

As he signed the bill, Dunleavy said, “As someone who lived there for nearly twenty years, I well know the challenges of living in rural Alaska: high costs of living and everyday essentials, limited infrastructure, and oftentimes limited economic opportunities. I am a firm believer that digital equality creates economic and educational equality. Broadband deployment will be a game-changer in rural Alaska.”

Representative Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham sponsored the bill. The signing ceremony took place at the Alaska Broadband Summit + Workshop.

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