Balassa Larson had just walked through the door of Alaska Commercial in Bethel on October 8th. She was one of several grocers that day who arrived to find the store only accepted cash.
“It’s an inconvenience for me because I don’t have any cash on me,” Larson said.
AC employees said the problem with payment systems on Oct. 8 was related to an internet outage that followed the announcement of two new projects focused on improving the internet in Bethel and other communities in the region.
Bethel Native Corporation President Ana Hoffman is excited about one of these two projects, both of which will bring fiber optic cables to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
“So we’re going to have very competitive rates and great service,” Hoffman said.
One of the projects is a partnership between Bethel Native Corporation and GCI. The cable for this project will run from Dillingham to Bethel. The submarine cable will emerge from the ground at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. Along the way, he will serve GCI customers in Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak and Oscarville. A second phase of the project will serve Atmautluak, Nunapitchuk, Kasigluk, Quinhagak and Tuntutuliak.
Hoffman said the first phase of the $42 million project is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.
Calista Corporation will undertake a second similar effort alongside Alaska Communications. Their project will serve Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, Kwethluk and Napakiak.
Thom Leonard is Vice President of Calista. He said students and patients who depend on telehealth will benefit from fiber optic cable.
“It will absolutely be night and day. We see this as the first step and hopefully connecting more communities on both rivers as funding becomes available,” Leonard said.
Funding for both projects comes from $1 billion the federal government has set aside for tribal broadband programs across the country. Ten percent of this sum will finance the two projects in western Alaska.
GCI currently serves YK Delta communities through a microwave network. The internet signal in a microwave network relies on radio waves. GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said it’s a slower system than fiber optics.
“The microwave network is solid,” Handyside said. “Microwaves are a great technology for providing conductivity. It’s fast, but there’s a maximum capacity it will reach. There’s a limit to how much data it can carry.
Handyside said download speeds at Bethel are currently around 10 megabits per second. Once the city is connected to fiber optic cable, she said users will see speeds of around 2,000 megabits per second.
In addition to faster speeds, Handyside said prices will drop significantly. GCI’s Bethel customers currently pay around $300 per month for the company’s fastest plan. Once communities are connected to fiber, she said they will be able to access city plans. An unlimited data plan in Anchorage currently costs $180 per month.
“So 200 times faster and over $100 cheaper,” Handyside said. “The cost of the plans may change slightly over the years, but that will be exactly what we have in Anchorage.”
GCI’s fiber optic cable network is already available to 80% of Alaskans, according to Handyside.
For Hoffman at Bethel, starting to connect the remaining 20% means more than faster social media and cheaper streaming.
“We have such a rich life, we have so much cultural knowledge and expression,” Hoffman said, “We’re going to have the ability to share the beauty of our culture with the rest of the world.”
Along with sharing, Hoffman said a better internet will make it easier to preserve and practice Alaskan Native culture and tradition.
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