COVID-19 has focused our attention on the plight of students struggling to go to school on the internet. It’s been worse in rural Alaska, where kids have huddled outside closed schools, trying to pick up a Wi-Fi signal to complete their homework assignments. And their parents depend on the internet, too. Like urban folks, they use it to order groceries, clothing and medications. They use it to attend Zoom meetings and, of course, to watch television and movies — needed entertainment on a stormy winter night. Like their city friends, rural residents need high-speed internet service. It’s called broadband.
The official Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband is known as 25/3 — 25 Mbps toward the user and 3 Mbps away from the user. This will make sense to the geeks among us, but for the rest of us, it’s simply service that’s fast enough to surf the web, watch videos and do all the other things we’ve come to expect from the internet.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I helped a small group of dedicated professionals working to provide modern telecommunication service to Alaska’s villages. And it worked. By the early 1980s, most rural residents had access to what then passed for modern service — telephones, a radio station, and a TV channel. But then the internet happened.
By the dawn of the 21st century, it was clear that internet would become an essential service. More than a decade later, Gov. Sean Parnell appointed an advisory group he called Alaska’s “Statewide Broadband Task Force,” and in August 2013 the panel published its report, “A Blueprint for Alaska’s Broadband Future.” They recognized the importance of broadband, especially in rural Alaska, and its top recommendation was that Alaska pursue a goal of 100/100 broadband service “to households and businesses throughout Alaska by 2020.” Now, nearly eight years later and one year after the panel’s target date, rural Alaskans are far from realizing that goal or even the FCC’s more modest definition of broadband. Complaints from rural Alaska residents abound. They have told us clearly and emphatically that they need more and better broadband service.
But there has been some progress in the past decade. In 2011 GCI began its TERRA, or Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska, project. This project uses a combination of fiber-optic cables and microwave relay links to provide service to big parts of western Alaska. It’s been an improvement, but it has not provided the broadband service that rural Alaskans need. In December 2017, Quintillion, a less familiar company, completed construction of an undersea fiber-optic cable providing high-speed connections to Prudhoe Bay, Utqiagvik, Wainwright, Point Hope, Kotzebue and Nome. These coastal communities now have access to broadband, but without access to the cable, inland communities generally do not.
In August 2016 the Alaska Telecom Association, on behalf of its member companies, struck a deal with the FCC to provide broadband to rural Alaska. Called the “Alaska Plan,” it committed the association’s member companies to provide a modest 10/1 version of broadband service to most rural Alaska communities by the year 2026. That’s better than what was available in many of those communities in 2016 but still short of the FCC’s 25/3 broadband definition.
But even with all these helpful and well-intentioned efforts, the goal that the broadband task force wanted to achieve by 2020 has not been reached. Rural Alaskans do not have access to the broadband service they need. What can be done?
Well, there is hope. The new technology of low Earth orbiting satellites may soon help Alaska to achieve the task force goal. These new satellites — many already in orbit — will provide worldwide broadband service — including, of course, service to rural Alaska. More than 1,300 of the satellites are already in orbit, and more are being launched each month. Several companies have announced plans to provide the new service, but the two companies that already have satellites in orbit are SpaceX and OneWeb, the latter represented in Alaska by Pacific Dataport Inc. According to SpaceX, satellite-based broadband service will be available across all of Alaska next year.
Many have worked over the past decade to provide broadband service to our rural residents. There has been progress, but more is needed. Low Earth orbiting satellites — combined with the work of Alaskan companies — may finally lead to the broadband service that rural Alaskans need.
Alex Hills arrived in rural Alaska in 1970 to help build its telecom systems. The work that he and others did is described in his book, “Finding Alaska’s Villages: And Connecting Them.” He worked for Gov. Jay Hammond as Alaska’s top telecom official and is now distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University but lives in Palmer.