Alaska broadband task force prepares for ‘transformational’ influx of federal funding

An influx of federal broadband spending could be transformational for dozens of Alaska communities that don't have adequate infrastructure.
Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 4:37 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The state of Alaska is poised to receive over $1 billion to develop high-speed broadband networks as part of a bipartisan federal infrastructure package.

“Oh gosh, it’s going to be transformational,” said Christine O’Connor, executive director of the Alaska Telecom Association.

O’Connor sat on a broadband task force established by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier in the year. It recently released its final report on how internet access could be improved across Alaska.

The task force found that 63.7% of rural Alaska residents have access to adequate broadband, but that figure is likely overstated by “unreliable” mapping. More accurate maps are expected to be completed by the Federal Communications Commission next year before funding is then distributed to states.

The new influx of funding comes from the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill supported by Alaska’s congressional delegation. It will provide over $1 billion to the state of Alaska for high-speed broadband alongside billions more in funding for tribes across the country.

“That is enough to really build out meaningful broadband infrastructure for Alaska,” O’Connor said.

There are major broadband projects currently being developed in Alaska. A fiber network is being rolled out across the Aleutians while cables are being laid from Prince of Wales Island to Juneau.

Dozens of Alaska communities, including regional hubs, are considered “unserved” for broadband. The minimum speeds set out in the infrastructure bill for high-speed internet are 100 megabytes per second for downloads and three megabytes per second for uploads.

The bill also sets out a goal to deliver high-speed broadband to all Alaskans within five years.

Nils Andreassen, executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, sat on the task force. He suggests the five-year timeline is ambitious.

“I think we know that in Alaska it’s going to take time,” he said.

The task force recommends that the state prioritize investing in fiber cables as the “gold standard” for these new broadband networks. O’Connor said fiber has “almost unlimited upgradable, scalable capability,” but there will also be new satellite technology operating over Alaska.

Following the task force’s recommendations, the governor’s office will set up a dedicated state broadband office to help disperse these funds. Alaska is currently one of 16 states that doesn’t have one.

In 2014, a previous Alaska broadband task force also recommended establishing a state broadband office and called for all Alaskans to have high-speed internet by 2020. O’Connor said this infrastructure funding is a game changer.

“We’ve never seen an environment like this before for broadband,” she added.

Andreassen says a priority should be delivering equity for rural Alaska, similar to how power cost equalization helps reduce electricity bills. The task force recommended rate adjustments for rural Alaska residents where internet bills can be more than $300 per month, he added.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Alaska’s digital divide caused challenges for remote health care, education and commerce, O’Connor said. The hope is that rolling out high-speed internet could make real, tangible changes for rural communities.

“We thank the people of Alaska and all the stakeholders for their involvement,” Dunleavy said after the task force released its report. “And now the work of connecting every Alaskan begins.”

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