Slower Internet Likely to Persist in Rural Alaska

A major reform announced last month by the Federal Communications Commission promises to extend high-speed internet access to people in rural areas across the country.  But the 27 percent of Alaskan consumers whose internet comes through a satellite won’t see the same degree of improvement.

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to address internet inequality on a national scale by shifting $4.5 billion in government subsidies away from traditional telephone networks toward internet-based systems.  The Commission released the full Connect America reform order last month.  It’s a 759-page document, but the basic gist is that telephone companies are going to have to offer affordable broadband to their customers if they want to continue receiving federal funding.

That’s a big deal for Alaska, where less than 75 percent of residents have access to broadband.

What qualifies as broadband though will be different for Alaskan communities served by satellite, which includes most communities off the road system.

In general, the Commission is calling for providers to have minimum download speeds of 4 megabits per second.   That’s fast enough to stream high-definition video.  It’s also already the standard in most urban areas.

But the Commission determined that requiring 4 megabits per second in communities off the fiber network was unreasonable. Here’s FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield.

“For a provider, perhaps in Unalaska, to reach those speed standards, they might have to launch multiple satellites. Very, very expensive proposition.  So we tried to be flexible.  We want to make sure everyone has broadband, but we also have to make sure that we don’t break the bank or impose unrealistic requirements on providers in the process.”

So they set the speed requirement considerably lower – only 1 megabit.  That’s still fast enough to stream low-resolution video.

Dave Goggins is Vice President of Operations at TelAlaska, which provides both telephone and internet services in Unalaska.  Goggins says 1 megabit is triple the speed his company currently offers residential customers.

“It’s a constant balancing act trying to provide for the needs of the community with what we’ve got.  The demands continue to be more and more, but our base customer numbers remain the same.”

Goggins says TelAlaska would need to purchase at least $40,000 per month in additional bandwidth to get community-wide internet speeds up to 1 megabit.   TelAlaska CEO Brenda Shepard says that’s going to be hard without additional support.

“It just won’t be affordable for people.”

But others are more optimistic.  Heather Hudson is Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.  She sees potential in the reforms for faster, cheaper telecommunications.

“It’s going to take some innovative thinking about both the technology and the business models, but I really do think that they can work and that there’s enough flexibility in how the decision is written and the details that have not yet been decided that it can be fine-tuned for the Alaska context.”

Representative Don Young says he’s formed a House caucus to review the reforms, to make sure they don’t curtail investment in Alaskan telecommunications.

“This is a work in progress.  This is not a final set in concrete rule.  And so, with our input through the Caucus and through members of Congress from rural areas listening to their constituents and saying ‘what do we really need?’ I think we can change this for the rural areas where the market doesn’t bear the cost right away.”

The FCC is taking public comment on the reforms through January 18th.

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