Digital gap continues to close for Alaska’s Indigenous people | Polarjournal
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is the largest river delta in the world. About 25,000 people, most of them indigenous people, live on about 130,000 square kilometers. In this infrastructure-poor region, the digital gap is now to be closed with two large federal grants. Image: USWFS

Today, digital communications are no longer a luxury good, but a necessity, not only for business, but also for education, health, security and culture. But the development standards of the necessary infrastructure is not the same in all parts of the world, leading to the digital gap. In the Arctic, this gap is particularly large, including in far western Alaska. Help is now coming from Washington D.C. and Anchorage.

Thanks to two financial grants awarded to the Bethel Native Cooperation BNC on the one hand and the communications provider GCI on the other, a total of ten communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta with a population of over 10,000 can be connected to a 2Giga broadband Internet via fiber optic cable. The total subsidy amounts to more than US$ 73 million (€ 75.5 million) and comes from the “Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program” of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and from a program of the US Department of Agriculture to connect rural regions. The announcement was formally presented to the public yesterday on the Indigenous People’s Day at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

The BNC, which represents the interests of indigenous people in the Y-K region, and the GCI jointly presented the AIRRAQ (“thread that tells a story”) project, which will be one of the largest communications projects in the region. More than 650 kilometers of cable will first connect two communities via undersea to GCI’s fiber optic network from the village of Dillingham, and then connect another 8 towns overland from the entrance to the Delta, including the region’s largest city, Bethel. “The residents of the 10 grant communities are now looking forward to faster speeds, more data and having much more affordable plans in the coming years,” said Ana Hoffman, CEO of Bethel Native Cooperation. For the inhabitants a new era will dawn, in which not only the world will come to them, but they will be able to share their culture, their history with the world, she continued in her speech.

For GCI, the expansion of the fiber optic network will be a solvable logistical job. This is because the provider has already connected the remote Aleutian Islands with a fiber optic cable. The work is scheduled to be completed by 2024. Image: courtesy of the GCI

In fact, the Alaskan region is one of the most poorly connected areas in the U.S. to date, due in no small part to the spongy subsurface and associated technical difficulties. These are probably not a problem for GCI, however, as the company has already been able to demonstrate its capabilities on another major project, a fiber optic cable link of the Aleutian chain. ““GCI pledges to the people of the Y-K Delta, our partner BNC, and NTIA and RUS that we will build and operate a first-rate network that will not just narrow, but eliminate the rural-urban digital divide for the 10,000-plus residents of Bethel and the other served communities,” promises Greg Chapados, chief operating officer at GCI. Furthermore, the coming digitization should not only mean a leap across the digital gap on the technical side for residents, but also be affordable. Costs are expected to be no higher than for Anchorage residents, according to GCI. In special cases, there is even a program that covers the costs entirely and provides free access to the recipients of the program, without any restrictions.

Bethel Native Cooperation CEO Ana Hoffman (left) fought to close the region’s digital gap and received strong support from Gov. Mike Dunleavy (right). Further help also came from Washington itself, as Senators Sullivan and Murkowski strongly supported the NTIA’s grant program. Images: BNC / US Congress

The importance of the AIRRAQ (pronounced EY-CHA-GCK) project to Alaska and the residents of the Y-K Delta was evident at the presentation. Not only representatives from GCI and the BNC were present, but Senator Dan Sullivan joined in live and Senator Lisa Murkowski had a greeting message sent via video. The Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the U.S. Department of Commerce also emphasized the importance of the project. Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy, who has championed the funding from the beginning, sees the project as an opportunity for the region to generate more investment and thus a boost for the Alaskan economy, and for youth to gain prospects for better education and job opportunities in the future. The newly elected and first Alaskan Native woman in the House of Representatives, Rep. Mary Pelota is also pleased. Because she’s from Bethel herself, she says, “My kids and I can’t wait to enjoy the service we’ll have there once it’s built.” But she will have to be patient until the end of 2024.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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