'Once-in-a-lifetime' broadband expansion will take years to roll out in rural Alaska

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it’s putting $29 million toward connecting just over 1,200 people, a school and 45 businesses in Craig and Klawock on Prince of Wales Island and also Hyder to high-speed internet.

That funding is part of Alaska’s $116 million slice of $401 million in grants to improve internet access in 11 states. It’s part of an initial round of the more than $90 billion the federal government has committed to spending on bringing affordable, high-speed internet to communities across the country.

Other Alaska communities in last week’s round of grants include Cordova, villages around Bethel and in the southwest region of the state.

The grants are funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and are intended to bring internet to communities lacking anything close to high speeds.

And while Alaska communities are in the running for billions of dollars more in grants to expand broadband access, experts say the state’s digital divide could be slow to close.

“I think it’s hard for people to understand how long some of this stuff takes,” said Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Network Architect Chris Cropley. “You have to buy property, do radio engineering, get steel — it has to be American steel. Just getting the (Federal Communications Commission) to acknowledge the lease is going to take a month or two.”

Cropley has a running list of programs aimed at funding broadband services and accessibility — targeting everything from education and distance learning to telemedicine and funding for tribal governments. He said there are new programs coming online “all the time.”

“The new funding is an unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get broadband to the people” he said.

And, while the state will be competing with the rest of the country to get grants, the largest federal programs are prioritizing projects for unserved or underserved communities.

“Alaska doesn’t have to game the system. We are worse off than everyone else,” Cropley said.

He is working on Tidal Network, a pilot wireless broadband project for Wrangell. Central Council used funding it received from the American Rescue Plan Act. The federal infrastructure bill from 2021 earmarked $25 billion for low-cost, high-speed internet.

But the Tidal Network rollout has been held up because two cell towers that were supposed to be delivered in May were delayed until September. Cropley said those shipments should still be on track. But other rural communities and newer projects might have to wait longer.

“Wrangell is lucky, he said. “It jumped the line by like, two years. … I’m ordering gear every day and I wish it was coming in September.”

One of Wrangell’s other telecommunications providers — Alaska Power and Telephone — is also experiencing equipment delays. According to its 2021 annual report to shareholders, the company expects supply chain issues to affect its operations for the next several years. “Lead times on some items will be very long and prices are increasing significantly.”

Cropley blames the delays for digital equipment on supply issues, and he thinks those problems will get worse.

“They’re dumping billions of dollars into getting guys like me to go buy this stuff. It’s a double whammy. So, the supply chain is recovering in some places but in other places — like, trying to get fiber right now? Good freaking luck,” he said.

One bright spot around the tribe’s pending Tidal Network rollout in Wrangell is that the program that allowed it to get the federal broadband licenses also requires “defending” it. To do that, it had to scale up to offering internet service to 50% of the area’s population within the first two years of having the license and 80% of the area in five years.

Now, those defense windows have been extended, and Cropley said Central Council has eight years to reach 80% coverage.

“This has taken a lot of pressure off,” he said, but “we are not letting the extension shift any of our timelines.”

When it is installed in Wrangell, Tidal Network will mostly focus on serving areas of the community outside the coverage of existing high-speed internet services, or with weak coverage from those providers.

While Wrangell is well-positioned when compared to other parts of rural Alaska, nearby Southeast communities like Kasaan, Thorne Bay, Whale Pass, Coffman Cove and Kupreanof are completely unserved by high-speed internet, according to the state.

That makes them a priority for federal funding programs. However, the state’s broadband coordinator, Lisa Von Bargen, said it could be years before projects come online in those areas.

Von Bargen, Wrangell’s former borough manager, heads up the state’s new broadband office and is tasked with overseeing the state’s broadband funding and managing rolling out the new programs.

Right now, Von Bargen said she is extremely busy. Her office is recruiting for staff and responding to Notices of Federal Funding Opportunity — essentially grants — through the two federal programs the state is focused on for broadband funds.

Once the state gets the money, she said the plan is to develop programs for new projects across the state. But, she said, it could be six to eight years before rural Alaskans see an expansion of their access to broadband.

To learn more about funding opportunities, possible timelines and coordination, federal, state and Native government and community members will meet with other stakeholders on Aug. 9 during a broadband summit and workshop at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage.


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