Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Content tagged with "alaska"
Data unsurprisingly ranks remote Alaska dead last when it comes to the availability of affordable broadband. That’s particularly true in areas like Bristol Bay, an area the FCC’s updated broadband maps suggests lacks access almost entirely. But as with most underserved regions, local cooperatives are at the forefront of efforts to finally address the problem.
Launched in 1975, the member-owned Nushagak Electric & Telephone Cooperative, based in Dillingham, Alaska, offers locals broadband access through microwave towers; often the only way to provide service across Alaska’s rugged landscape. But the co-op, which also offers a electric, telephone, and cable TV service, says it’s on the cusp of new fiber deployments that should finally bring next-generation speeds to a chunk of the co-op’s members.
The co-op has been working since 2021 on a $22.4 million plan to expand more reliable fiber to the region. The project is partially funded by the USDA ReConnect program as well as $6.5 million in term loan money from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation. The cooperative will also use $784,000 of its own money to get the project underway.
Each year since its creation in 2017, the Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) has convened those working on the frontlines of Tribal connectivity. It brings together decision makers and stakeholders to build support for digital sovereignty and quality, affordable connectivity for Indigenous communities.
With less than 60 percent of those living on Tribal lands in the lower 48 states having access to basic broadband connections – as Native Nations have regularly been excluded from policy conversations around these issues – ICS has become an important voice as the federal government is finally investing billions of dollars to expand high-speed Internet access across Indian Country.
The Summit, held this year in Anchorage, Alaska, was hosted by the Indigenous Connectivity Institute, an affiliate of Connect Humanity, an organization that supports underserved communities’ pursuit of better Internet access and enhancing digital skills. The Summit has become the most prominent event of its type in North America.
Summit participants don’t just convene and talk. They also agree on a series of calls-to-action for governments and other entities with an eye on promoting digital equity in Indigenous communities. Last year’s calls to action, which included messaging around inclusive Tribal consultation, government and industry accountability, Indigenous spectrum rights, and workforce development, served as the foundation for this year’s focus.
The Tlingit and Haida Tribes will leverage $15 million in Rescue Plan funding to bring LTE-based 100 Mbps symmetrical wireless connectivity to 10,000 unserved residents in and around the city of Wrangell, located on Wrangell Island in southeast Alaska. The Internet Service Provider in charge of the buildout is the newly-launched, tribally-owned ISP Tidal Networks. The project is a pilot the tribes plan to expand to all residents of the island, and eventually to other communities in the region.
The pilot is made possible by Tlingit and Haida’s successful participation in the FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Window, which allowed tribes to claim space on the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum band. Back in 2019, Tlingit and Haida partnered with southeast Alaska village tribes to gain access to the spectrum, and worked throughout 2021 to “discuss [Tlingit and Haida’s] broadband initiative and opportunities to partner for the broadband project.”
Utilizing Spectrum to Make Connectivity Feasible
In 1999, Yakutat became home to one of Alaska’s first surf shops. Now, two decades later, the coastal community of 600 people is looking at another first for the community — high-speed Internet access.
Cordova Telecom Cooperative (CTC) will be expanding its broadband network to Yakutat from the co-op’s headquarters 220 miles away in Cordova, Alaska. Already, CTC offers wireline and mobile connectivity in and around Cordova. The new project, codenamed NICEY or New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat, will bring high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to the village, which has a large Native Alaskan population.
NICEY will be financed in large part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect grant of nearly $19 million awarded to CTC in December. This money will help fund not only the deployment of the fiber network in Yakutat but also the construction of several remote wireless towers to connect the village to the broader Internet. “I don’t know how many grants of this size local groups have gotten,” CTC general manager and CEO Jeremiah Beckett told the Cordova Times. “It’s pretty big for Cordova.”
Neighbors Partner for Grant
Locals and visitors alike can only reach Yakutat by air or sea — there are no roads to the southeastern Alaskan community. The Internet is similarly hard to access for village residents.
Yakutat’s poor connectivity forces the school to limit student access to online materials and courses; businesses sometimes struggle to run card transactions. Households’ only available option for Internet access is satellite, typically hampered by low speeds, frequent service interruptions, and restrictive data caps.
A recent proposal being considered by the FCC that has raised the loudest outcry has been the status of mobile broadband in rural areas. Now that Verizon is discontinuing rural subscriber accounts, the FCC will be able to see those concerns come to life.
The company has decided to cut service to scores of customers in 13 states because those subscribers have used so many roaming charges, Verizon says it isn’t profitable for the company. Service will end for affected subscribers after October 17th.
Verizon claims customers who use data while roaming via other providers’ networks create roaming costs that are higher than what the customers pay for services. In rural communities, often mobile wireless is the best (albeit poor) or only option for Internet access, so subscribers use their phones to go online.
Subscribers are from rural areas in Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin.
In a letter sent to customers scheduled to be cut off, Verizon offered no option, such as paying more for more data or switching to a higher cost plan. Many of the people affected were enrolled in unlimited data plans:
“During a recent review of customer accounts, we discovered you are using a significant amount of data while roaming off the Verizon Wireless network. While we appreciate you choosing Verizon, after October 17th, 2017, we will no longer offer service for the numbers listed above since your primary place of use is outside the Verizon service area.”
Affecting Customers And Local Carriers
Apparently, Verizon’s LTE in Rural America (LRA) program, which creates partnerships with 21 other carriers, is the culprit. The agreements it has with the other carriers through the program allows Verizon subscribers to use those networks when they use roaming data, but Verizon must pay the carriers’ fees. Verizon has confirmed that they will disconnect 8,500 rural customers who already have little options for connectivity.
Philip Dampier at Stop The Cap! writes:
It isn't very often we have the chance to share stories from the "Last Frontier," but a cooperative in the Valdez area is making news with a planned upgrade to fiber this summer.
DSL to Fiber
According to the Valdez Star, Copper Valley Telecom (CVT) subscribers will be enjoying a switch from old copper DSL Internet access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) when CVT upgrades its system. The new technology will also improve telephone service.
"Once complete, all voice and data will be delivered to the home over fiber optic line and the new electronic interface," CVT said. "Modems will also be replaced."
"There is no cost to the customer for the fiber installation," [CEO Dave] Dengel stated. "Customers will not be asked to pay for the new fiber or the electronics required for voice and Internet access."
Increasing Role of Co-Ops
CVT has served co-op members for more than 50 years with telephone service in the Valdez area and also serves the Copper River Valley and Cordova. Co-ops are bringing high-quality Internet access to rural areas across the U.S. and we expect to see more upgrades as existing co-ops switch to fiber. Co-ops know that their future depends on the future of their members because they are members, too.
As CVT Chief Executive Officer, Dave Dengel, put it, "By upgrading our network from copper to fiber, Copper Valley Telecom is preparing the community for the future."
This past July the USDA announced over $85 million in funding for rural broadband projects across seven states. The projects, many awarded to rural cooperatives, aim to bridge the digital divide and expand economic opportunities. For those interested in federal funding opportunities, NTIA has just released this guide [pdf].
Rural areas are often passed over by big telcos because they are considered less profitable. Farming, however, is a high-tech industry, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes that Internet access is as necessary as electricity in rural areas:
"Broadband is fundamental to expanding economic opportunity and job creation in rural areas, and it is as vital to rural America's future today as electricity was when USDA began bringing power to rural America 80 years ago. ... Improved connectivity means these communities can offer robust business services, expand access to health care and improve the quality of education in their schools, creating a sustainable and dynamic future those who live and work in rural America."
The USDA has awarded more than $77 million in Community Connect Grants for rural broadband projects (since 2009). This July, the USDA loaned $74.8 million and awarded another $11 million in Community Connect Grants. Here is the current round-up of the USDA’s most recent loans and grants:
Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative Inc. will connect Point Hope subscribers and prepare for an undersea fiber line with a $1.4 million grant.