Better rural broadband in Alaska is within reach

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By Alex Hills

Updated: 18 a few minutes ago Published: 18 a few minutes ago

Finally, rural Alaskans have the option of getting good broadband service. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden last November, may soon make that possible. The new law earmarks more than $64 billion to build new national broadband infrastructure. But for this to work for our state, we will have to do some things right.

Decades ago, a few people succeeded in bringing telecommunications services – radio, television and telephone – to the villages of Alaska. But that was the telecommunications service of the 20th century. Now, several years later, high-speed Internet service, also known as “broadband”, is here, and for most Alaskans it has become a necessity. It’s something we all need, but many Alaskan villagers still don’t have access to adequate service.

The broadband portion of the new infrastructure law will be implemented primarily by two federal agencies. The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, is creating a map of all US states and territories, showing where broadband service is inadequate. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, will be responsible for distributing most of the broadband money to the states, and the allocation of each state will be based on FCC cards. Both federal agencies are working on their tasks, and they still have a lot to do.

But our own state government has a vital role to play. The new law requires each state to have a broadband office that can use its share of federal money to provide grants to companies and other organizations that will build new broadband infrastructure. Alaska has not had such an office for many years, but one will be newly created within the Alaska Department of Commerce Community and Economic Development, aka DCCED, by HB 363, recently passed by the Legislative Assembly of Alaska and is expected to be signed into law soon by Governor Mike Dunleavy. DCCED is already actively working on setting up the new office, but a big task lies ahead. The new Broadband Office will need to work closely with the NTIA to award grants to entities submitting proposals.

Effective and judicious use of infrastructure funds will require a well-informed, careful and thoughtful approach. Staff at the new broadband office will have to choose wisely from the many grant proposals they will inevitably receive. They will need to ensure that applicants have the technical expertise, financial capability, and management capacity to build the systems they are proposing. They will also need to ensure that the technologies they offer are appropriate for the service areas for which they are intended. In other words, to be successful, the Broadband Office will need to make grant decisions strictly based on the technical, financial, and managerial merits of proposed projects.

Internet users can only benefit from the money from new broadband infrastructure if all the agencies involved – federal and state – do their job well. Most important in Alaska will be the performance of our state broadband office.

Alex Hills, in his book “Finding Alaska’s Villages: And Connecting Them”, describes the work he and others did decades ago to build Alaska’s rural telecommunications system. He served under Governor Jay Hammond as deputy administrative commissioner and chief telecommunications officer for Alaska, then led the team that built the world’s first major Wi-Fi network. A 52-year-old Alaskan with 17 patents, Alex is Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and he continues to work on developing innovative new technologies.

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