Frontiersman: Alaska to get $1.1 billion in new federal money for broadband infrastructure

Alaska will receive $1,017 billion in new federal funding to build out broadband infrastructure connecting communities  with high speed internet, the state’s U.S. Senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, announced Monday, June 26.

The money is from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment, or BEAD program, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) passed by Congress two years ago.

The funding comes from the IIJA’s Alaska BEAD allocation of $1,017,139.42. It is the single largest investment announced for the state since the passage of the IIJA, Murkowski and Sullivan said.

“These BEAD allocations are truly historic and will make a huge difference on broadband access in communities across Alaska. I’m glad the (Biden) administration listened to calls for investment in our state. We are now on the verge of providing thousands of Alaskans in rural communities with better, faster, more reliable access to the internet—a basic necessity that many in the Lower 48 take for granted,” Murkowski said in a statement.

The money may not be enough, however. Alaska telecommunications companies estimate $1.8 billion in new investments are needed to fully build out the broadband network,

The BEAD announcement follows 18 months of grant awards from the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and USDA’s ReConnect program, another federal program similarly funded by IIJA.

Recently the state was selected to receive $100.5 million in USDA ReConnect Round Four funds and $88 million in NTIA Middle-Mile program funds to assist with broadband deployment.

“This historic funding announcement is exciting news for Alaska,” said Sullivan. “These funds will go a long way toward the goal of connecting every single Alaskan, which will unlock limitless possibilities in terms of telehealth, education and small business opportunities. Importantly, it will better allow Alaskans to connect with one another.”

Alaska telecommunication companies like GCI and Alaska Communications Systems are already organized to take advantage of the new funding, and are teaming up with Alaska Native regional and some village corporations to lay new fiber optic cable.

Not surprisingly the companies are wary of satellite competitors like U.K.-based OneWeb and Starlink, a U.S. company that is part of SpaceX.

Both land-based and space-base systems will be needed in the long run. Today there are multiple fiber systems as well as satellites supporting larger Alaska communites, and as fiber is built into rural communities there will be backup needed. The Low Earth Orbit Satellites operated by OneWeb are in polar orbits, which is important for Alaska, while Starlinko perates satellites in equatorial orbits, which also serves Alaska.

Also, a new geostationary satellite owned by Alaska-based Pacific Dataport is now in orbit and soon to be in commercial service. A second, larger geostationary satellite will be operating in two years, the company said. Satellites have received a bad rap because of the annoying delays in signals but the newer technology satellites have eliminated this for all practical purposes, the operators say. Their competitors, the land-based telecoms, are champions of the terrestrial-based fiber optic and claim the new satellites have capacity limits. OneWeb sharply disagrees with this.

Fiber optic cable isn’t without problems, howevet. While cable is considered a gold standard for broadband and high-speed internet, the recent cable break in Quintillion’s offshore network illustrate the need for backups. Quintillion’s cable break came under sea ice north of Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow. Repairs will have to wait until the ice clears. This will take weeks and perhaps a month or more.

Meanwhile, there have been impressive accomplishments in the last six years with $1.7 billion spent in improving service, mainly with federal funds. Between 2017 and 2022, 70,000 locations were upgraded and 50,000 Alaskans saw improved service, the Alaska Telecom Association told state legislators in a briefing in April. Rural schools have seen the average bandwidth available increase from 19 Megabytes per second (MBps) in 2016 to 34 Mbpd in 2022. There has been a corresponding decrease in the cost of connectivity to service for schools, dropping by almost half, on average, from 2016 to 2022.

By:  Tim Bradner
Source: Frontiersman