Rural broadband is essential infrastructure

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Broadband is now recognized as an essential service in Alaska – it really is infrastructure. It took us a while to realize it, but now we are doing it.

In the 1970s, a group of dedicated professionals brought telecommunications services – radio, television, and telephone – to the villages of Alaska. Soon after the end of this decade, most villages had modern telecommunications services. But that was the modern telecommunications service of the 1970s.

Then the Internet came along. I sent my first e-mail in 1980, and over the next decade many more did as well. The Internet was gaining ground. Then in 1989, the global web was invented.

At the turn of this century, urban Alaskans were comfortable using the Internet, but most rural Alaskans still used this 1970s “modern telecommunication service”. Many villagers had limited or no Internet access. Some had dial-up modems that could be connected by a long distance phone call to Anchorage – but not much more. It was slow and it was expensive.

In the 2000s, new uses of the Internet required increasingly fast Internet speeds. High-speed Internet service, also known as “broadband,” evolved and quickly became available in urban areas of Alaska, but not in villages. We have called this urban-rural disparity the “digital divide”, and it persists today. Many villagers in Alaska still do not have the broadband service they need. And last year, COVID-19 made the digital divide painfully evident when we heard about village children gathered outside closed schools trying to pick up Wi-Fi signals for homework.

Now rural broadband has been recognized as a priority and has been included in the new infrastructure law backed by the three members of our delegation to Congress, who crossed party lines to vote for the new measure. The new law will soon make broadband financing available. But now comes the hard part. Funding alone will not solve the problem.

The technological environment is complex. It includes fiber optic cable, microwave, satellite and wireless. Fiber optic cable can provide very high speed service, but it is expensive to install over the long distances and difficult terrain that surrounds our villages. The microwave will not handle the same very high speeds, but it is cheaper and less difficult to install. The new satellite technology is attractive but has not yet been widely tested in the field. And wireless can be a useful alternative to cable distribution within a village or community.

How will technology and other important decisions be made? Well, we are not living in the 1970s. There are more players and the situation is much more complex than it was then. In the 2020s, Alaskans will need to work together to make rural broadband a reality.

The state government will have a big role. Governor Mike Dunleavy’s Broadband Task Force recently completed a report emphasizing the importance of broadband. But to implement the new federal broadband legislation, the state government of Alaska must create a new broadband office to work with the federal government and help distribute the new funds available. Maps showing current broadband availability (or lack thereof) should be created to guide new broadband infrastructure projects. Our telecommunications companies will be important because they need technological experience and expertise. Alaska Native corporations and tribal governments have already secured priority access to wireless spectrum and previously available funding, and they plan to use that spectrum and funding. Municipal governments have also been granted priority access to funding.

Yes, there are a lot more players than in the 1970s. Success will depend on each group doing their part, but on all groups cooperating and working together. Cooperation will be needed to decide which technologies should be used to provide the best and most efficient service in each region of the state.

Broadband financing is available. The rest belongs to the Alaskans.

Alex hills described the work he and others did in the 1970s to provide telecommunications service to rural Alaska in his book “Finding Alaska’s Villages: And Connecting Them.” Since 2000, he has been an advocate for broadband. A 51-year-old Alaskan man, he lives in Palmer.

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