Billions could go to rural communities to close the digital divide

A “gold rush” is underway for Alaskan tribes and Native businesses trying to capture a wave of federal infrastructure funding to provide city-quality broadband services in more than 200 towns across the state.

Representatives of the groups say now could be their time to transform lives and village economies by upgrading the glitchy, slow and often prohibitive cell phone and Internet service that exists in rural Alaska.

“This will change lives,” said Kevin Hamer, general manager of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium.

The group, which represents several tribes, has applied for a $300 million federal grant to bring high-speed internet to 17 villages in southwest Alaska.

They are one of several tribal groups or Alaska Native corporations that are applying for a portion of approximately $3 billion that has been set aside nationally for tribes by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration† Much of that money comes from last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure account

Some groups are partnering with telecommunications companies in hopes of winning subsidies to extend fiber optic cable, considered the gold standard for broadband delivery, to rural communities.

Others are trying to win grants to get broadband via satellite using satellites in low Earth orbit. Proponents say the service would be available faster in Alaska’s towns than fiber, but is still being tested in Alaska. Some groups say their broadband may cost less than $100 a month, a fraction of what rural residents currently pay.

“This is a unique opportunity to actually get the infrastructure we need in rural Alaska,” said Hallie Bissett, chair of the governor’s broadband task force and head of the group representing Alaska Native village businesses.

She said that with as much money as possible coming to Alaska, she fears there won’t be enough workers to finish it all.

The Alaska Native Village Corporation for Bethel has applied for $43 million of the tribal broadband grant. It partners with GCI, the largest telecommunications provider in Alaska.

If they win, their proposal would connect Bethel and other villages by 2024 with a fiber-optic extension to Dillingham, another hub community in southwest Alaska, GCI announced last year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of distance learning, remote work, and remote access to healthcare reinforced the need to close the digital divide in Western Alaska,” said Ana Hoffman, president of the Bethel Village Corporation, in a press release.

Alaska Communications, another telecommunications provider in Alaska, is collaborating on two applications for the stem money.

[The Alaska Permanent Fund is making its biggest investments within Alaska since the 1980s, but many of the details remain secret]

It has submitted an offer led by Calista and Doyon, two major regional Indigenous corporations, and Gana-A ‘Yoo, the Indigenous Corporation for four inland villages. The plan would extend fiber to homes in 23 communities, from Fort Yukon on the Yukon River to Napakiak at Bethel on the Kuskokwim River.

It’s a “fiber backbone that will positively transform our region,” said Dena Sommer-Pedebone, chief executive of Gana-A’ Yoo.

in a second proposal led by Hoonah Indian Association, a tribe in Southeast Alaska, Alaska Communications would extend fiber to homes in Hoonah and Gustavus, two Southeast Alaska communities of approximately 1,300 residents.

An ACP official declined to say how much money the two efforts are seeking.

The amount of federal money available is unprecedented, observers say. The infrastructure bill is pumping $65 billion in broadband improvements across the country, and Alaska, with its massive needs, is expected to take an inordinate share.

[Infrastructure bill to bring billions to Alaska for roads, ports and broadband. Here are some of the specifics.]

The money for the tribal groups is only part of the opportunity for Alaska, said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association. Additional grants are also available for businesses and tribes to apply for, including through the United States Department of Agriculture.

Among other benefits, the infrastructure bill will provide each state with at least $100 million to manage for broadband projects, she said. But Alaska, with its high infrastructure costs, could potentially land a lot more, she said.

“I expect to see a major expansion of broadband infrastructure in Alaska,” she said. “We’ve never seen such a level of funding for broadband in rural areas.”

Rural residents say it is high time. Better internet and mobile services would give people reliable access to online educational courses, work meetings and telemedicine, they say.

“A lot of people would access the Internet and get the stuff we need like IDs, services we can request, and order cheaper goods here,” said Mike McIntyre, a Yup’ik musician and Bethel YouTube content provider.

McIntyre said it takes him an hour to load a 5-minute video on YouTube, he said.

He usually paid GCI, the Internet and cell phone provider in Bethel, about $800 a month after his family went over the data limits, he said. After the pandemic hurt his live performance income, he made more than $3,000 in bills.

GCI recently cut him off.

“It’s like a second mortgage,” he said.

The rush of applications is like a “gold rush,” said Jim Berlin, general manager of Alaska Tribal Spectrum.

The consortium, with about 100 tribes, is the largest group trying to win some of the stem money for broadband.

It has applied for $250 million to distribute satellite-delivered signals in about 100 villages from southwest Alaska to southeast, Berlin said.

The consortium plans to install towers in villages and send a 2.5 gigahertz signal across the tundra. The group recently got a free broadcasting license under a separate federal program for strains in the Federal Communications Commission.

[Energy grants for Alaska Native corporation and US tribes are aimed at meeting vast power needs]

“We’re trying to provide the most economic value to the federal government,” Berlin said. “This will help people participate in the 21st century now.”

Crystal Dushkin, president of the Atka tribal government in the Aleutian Islands, said the tribe joined Alaska Tribal Spectrum to speed up the internet and reduce costs in the village.

There is currently no cell phone service provider in the village, about 1100 miles southwest of Anchorage. But under the plan, Alaska Tribal Spectrum could be that supplier, she said.

Dushkin’s family now pays about $450 a month in GCI for internet, sometimes more. The signal is weak and sometimes she can only get audio for online work meetings or college lectures because Zoom and other platforms are glitchy.

“High-speed internet is going to open up so many opportunities that we didn’t have access to,” she said.

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