SitNews: Two Alaska service providers to receive $46 million in USDA Grants to Expand High-Speed Internet Access
The Trump Administration announced this week that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is investing $46.5 million to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Alaska. This investment is part of the $550 million Congress allocated to the second round of the ReConnect Program.
U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young, (all R-Alaska) joined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue on Tuesday for a virtual announcement of more than $46 million in USDA Broadband ReConnect Program grants being awarded to two Alaska service providers to establish and improve broadband infrastructure in some of the state’s most remote communities. The grants are matched by nearly $17 million contributed by the grant recipients, bringing the total investment to roughly $63 million.
The two USDA grant recipients are Alaska Power & Telephone (AP&T) Wireless Company and Unicom, Inc., a subsidiary of GCI. Both recipients were participants in the virtual announcement.
AP&T Wireless was awarded $21.5 million ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 225 people, 32 businesses, an educational facility, a post office and a fire station to high-speed broadband internet in Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area, Alaska.
Unicom was awarded $25 million to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect 7,441 people, 310 businesses, 10 educational facilities, seven post offices, four fire stations and a city hall to high-speed broadband internet in Kodiak Island Borough, Lake and Peninsula Borough, Aleutians East Borough and Aleutians West Census Area in Alaska.
“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency. Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.
Perdue said, “I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on. We need them more than ever during these trying times, and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come.”
Alaska Power & Telephone Company's (AP&T) subsidiary AP&T Wireless, Inc. was selected to receive a $21,545,167 grant award through USDA Rural Utility Service’s ReConnect grant program for the “SEALink” broadband project. AP&T will provide over $7m in matching funds. Funds will be used to construct local networks which will provide high-speed broadband to all premises in Kasaan and Coffman Cove, and to develop and install an estimated 214-mile fiber optic cable between Prince of Wales Island, Petersburg, and Juneau. While grant-funded activities will focus on providing high speed broadband service in Kasaan and Coffman Cove, SEALink will support increased fiber optic-based broadband build-out and higher speeds across Prince of Wales Island.
The SEALink project will help fortify long-term economic and community stability on Prince of Wales Island, where legacy industries such as timber and mining have been in decline, and where residents have ever-increasing needs for broadband to support telemedicine, distance learning, remote working, ecommerce, tourism marketing, and sharing cultural resources and knowledge.
AP&T President and CEO Mike Garrett stated: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for residents of Kasaan and Coffman Cove to leap ahead of the digital divide. Other communities on Prince of Wales Island will also benefit from this new partnership with USDA to build the communications highway of the future.”
Development will occur over the next five years, with completion planned for 2025. After that, AP&T anticipates extending high- speed broadband to other communities on Prince of Wales Island.
Jason Custer, Vice President of Business Development, said, “This is very much a team victory made possible through collaboration and shared vision. We say “Háw'aa” and “Gunalchéesh” from the bottom of our hearts to Marina Anderson and Bonnie Hammar at the Organized Village of Kasaan, and Richard Peterson with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska for their support, collaboration, and encouragement throughout the application process. We also express thanks to everyone at Kavilco, the City of Coffman Cove, and the City of Kasaan for their leadership, guidance, and assistance in documenting community support. AP&T is excited to see the ways in which tribal members, ANCSA shareholders, and community members will be able to leverage high-speed broadband to achieve a diverse variety of socioeconomic objectives.”
Tom Ervin, Chief Operating Officer for AP&T, stated: "SEALink will provide fantastic support for community economic sustainability. New fiber infrastructure will ensure Kasaan and Coffman Cove residents will have substantial broadband capabilities for use in telemedicine applications, distance learning, remote working, and more. We congratulate and thank the communities for all their hard work to make this a success."
Commenting on the Southwest Alaska and the Aleutians' award, "This is a critical piece of infrastructure to our region that will bridge Alaska’s digital divide,” said Senate Majority Leader Lyman Hoffman (D-Bethel). “Soon, more rural Alaskans will have high speed, affordable broadband in our homes and businesses in communities along the chain.”
The Alaska Legislature this year passed Senate Bill 74, legislation sponsored by Sen. Hoffman that increased the minimum internet speed at schools statewide from 10 to 25 megabits per second.
This new law benefits Alaska students across the state by bridging the digital divide between urban and rural school districts, providing better access to information available in today’s world. Passage of SB 74 was an important step in making this project possible.
“I want to thank the USDA, Alaska’s Congressional Delegation – led on this issue by Senator Sullivan – and GCI for their efforts to bring better connectivity out the Aleutian chain,” Sen. Hoffman said. “This infrastructure expansion is critically important, especially with many students receiving an education online at home due to Covid.”
U.S. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, and Congressman Young, (all R-Alaska) joined U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Perdue on Monday for the virtual announcement.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of not being connected, a familiar problem to many Alaskans for far too long. We must continue to help Alaskan communities have the telecommunications broadband infrastructure that is taken for granted elsewhere,” said Senator Murkowski.
Murkowski said, “The announcement of these two grants is incredibly exciting news for Southeast and the Aleutians, and will improve connectivity for families, businesses, schools, other critical community services, and so much more. I appreciate Senator Sullivan and Congressman Young for working with me on this effort and thank Secretary Purdue for addressing the needs of Alaskans.”
“Gaining access to high-speed internet connectivity can be life-changing, especially for residents in rural Alaska where communication resources and infrastructure are most scarce,” said Senator Sullivan.
Sullivan said, “Thousands more Alaskans across the state will finally experience a utility so many of us take for granted, one that has shown itself to be absolutely indispensable in the age of COVID-19. I appreciate that Secretary Perdue has made these funds available after our numerous discussions and correspondences in which I have called attention to the lack of broadband across our state. As a member of the Commerce Committee, I will continue to work relentlessly to bring high-speed internet access to all communities across Alaska.”
"Alaskans from our cities, rural areas, and Native villages all deserve access to high quality, reliable broadband," said Congressman Young.
Young said, "The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the urgent need for internet access across our state. At this very moment, countless students are distance learning; working parents may be using the internet to learn new skills to help them succeed in the workforce; and some of our most vulnerable populations are utilizing telehealth services. We must ensure that all communities in our state are connected and empowered to thrive. I am grateful to Secretary Perdue for making these crucially needed investments in Alaska, and I remain confident that high-speed internet access will not only help our families prosper, but prepare our economy to come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before."
The grants announcement Monday followed a $19 million ReConnect grant awarded in 2019 to Cordova Telephone Cooperative to provide connectivity to 270 households in Yakutat, a project expected to be completed by the fall of 2021.
USDA’s Broadband ReConnect Program furnishes loans and grants to provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas.
Senator Sullivan, Senator Murkowski, Congressman Young and Governor Mike Dunleavy wrote a letter to Secretary Perdue in April in support of the Alaska grant applicants.
In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.
On April 20, 2020, USDA announced the Department has received 172 applications for $1.57 billion in Round Two of the ReConnect Program. The second round will enable USDA to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with our partners and continuing the success of the first round of funding. The application window for Round Two closed on April 15.
In Round One of the ReConnect Program, USDA invested $698 million to bring high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to approximately 167,000 households, 17,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities located in 33 states. To learn more about individual investments, read the USDA’s Broadband ReConnect Program report(PDF, 4 MB).
USDA received 11 Round Two ReConnect Program applications that are eligible for the $100 million Congress allocated to the program through the CARES Act.
By: Mark Kauffman