This is the first of a two-part series on internet access in Western Alaska.
Earl Atchak, a traditional mask maker in Chevak, said he normally pays around $350 a month for internet access.
“But sometimes that can almost double,” Atchak said.
In Chevak, 100 gigabytes of internet service from United Utilities, Inc. costs $299.99 a month. That’s not including the steep price incurred by going over that limit. The median income per capita in the Kusilvak Census Area is under $1,000 per month: Where Atchak lives, internet eats up a third of the average person’s income.
But Atchak said he doesn’t see any other option than to continue paying. While villages are locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic, he still needs to see his family and sell his artwork.
“When we need to communicate with our children, when we need that face time, when we need to sell a product online, when we need to make a ticket to our hospital appointment in Anchorage, who cares that we’re paying double?” Atchak said. “They can charge whatever they want and it’s not even fair.”
UUI is a subsidiary of GCI, which built the network that provides internet service for nearly all of Western Alaska. GCI Spokesperson Heather Handyside said internet service is so expensive in the region because the network was so costly to build. She said the TERRA project, which began in 2010 and was completed in 2017, cost GCI $287 million out of its own pocket, in addition to a $44 million government subsidy.
“That’s a huge investment to connect those 45,000 people,” Handyside said.
Other Y-K Delta residents say the high cost of internet access is not even the main problem. In some cases, there is no internet — regardless of how much people are willing to pay.
In December 2020, Akiachak Limited, a company that provides electricity, fuel, groceries, and check cashing for its village, reached its 100 gigabyte limit with UUI. President Jason George said the company was using more data because it was holding its meetings online due to the pandemic. The company was able to pay overage fees to use another 25 gigabytes, but after that George said the internet stopped working.
“I don’t see why they have to shut off the internet. We pay our bills every month and they should know that,” George said.
Handyside said the internet is not actually ever shut off. But she said that after customers in certain communities buy an extra $200 of data on top of their monthly package, they’re limited from purchasing any more until the next month — and their service is slowed to 512 kilobytes per second.
That’s 20 times slower than normal service in Akiachak, and nearly 2,000 times slower than what GCI offers without a data limit in Anchorage. George said at that speed, it’s essentially the same as being shut off.
“You just couldn’t even get a page loaded,” George said.
For the last week in December, George’s company had to relearn how to do everything without the internet. Employees couldn’t email vendors that Akiachak Limited buys from. Credit card transactions had to go through the phone line, which took minutes instead of seconds. Plus, the company’s end-of-year accounting process was delayed.
John Wallace runs a company that provides IT support for Akiachak Limited and other small companies and tribes in Western Alaska.
“The Internet has become a lifeline for business,” Wallace said. “Internet now is like electricity.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission approved a subsidy to help households that are low-income or live on Native American land pay for internet access. But Wallace said that doesn’t help companies like Akiachak Limited which can easily run through their allotment of high-speed internet.
“It may cost you less, but you still don’t have internet,” Wallace said.
Handyside said the imposed slowdowns are due to technology limitations in remote Alaska. In metropolitan areas like Anchorage, customers can connect to the internet through fiber-optic cables, which can transport huge amounts of data very quickly. But Handyside said fiber hasn’t reached many remote parts of Alaska.
“When you get further out, you can’t build fiber either because the distance, or the cost, or the heavily regulated lands that are surrounding a lot of rural Alaska. You have to have a different strategy,” said Handyside.
Handyside explained GCI’s network of over 100 towers in Western Alaska use microwaves to relay internet signals from villages back to places that are connected to fiber internet.
“Microwave is also very fast, but the capacity can be limited,” Handyside said. “In some communities, especially the more remote communities, we simply don’t have additional capacity available to provide.”
Some companies are now promising to add additional internet capacity in places like remote Alaska. Those solutions don’t use microwave towers or the fiber-optic network, but use newer kinds of satellites, and they may be coming as soon as this year.