There are two plans to bring high-speed, broadband internet to Bethel, but they’re competing against each other for the same funding.
Bethel’s tribe, ONC, will play a major role in deciding which plan gets the money.
The first broadband option uses satellites which beam in internet signals from space. Over half of the communities in the Y-K Delta have opted for this choice. The satellites would more than double internet speeds in Bethel, which would be a big improvement.
But there’s another option on the table that would provide internet service 100 times faster than what’s available now. It involves fiber optic cables.
GCI is the company that currently provides Bethel’s sluggish internet, and it also wants to be the one to revolutionize it with fiber. To do that, it’s partnering with the Bethel Native Corporation, or BNC. GCI had originally partnered with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation for the Bethel fiber project, but it is unclear if YKHC is still involved. Neither organization would answer questions about the status of that partnership.
BNC President and CEO Ana Hoffman said her organization teamed up with GCI because the company has experience delivering fiber to rural Alaska cities like Nome, Kotzebue and soon Dillingham and the Aleutian islands. She said GCI was Bethel’s best chance at bridging the digital divide.
“I don’t want our children to have to desire to live elsewhere to have faster internet or more reliable internet,” she said. “Those basic services should be available to our community and our kids.”
GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside said that fiber would, for the first time, bring unlimited data to Bethel for $175 a month. Currently, customers in Bethel are limited to 200 gigabytes of data for $300 per month.
Plus, Bethel wouldn’t be the only Y-K Delta community to benefit. Napaskiak, Platinum, Oscarville and Eek would also get fiber internet because they’re along the proposed cable route from Dillingham to Bethel. Handyside said that other communities in the region could get a boost in their internet speeds too with more web traffic going through Bethel.
To build the fiber cable, GCI and BNC are applying for a $43 million federal grant through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which is intended to expand broadband access for tribes. The grant application requires consent from the area’s governing tribe which, in Bethel, is ONC.
But, there’s a complication.
ONC has already committed to apply for the same grant with another group.
ONC is one of the founding members of the non-profit Y-K Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, which is planning to use the satellite option to bring broadband internet to the region. Kevin Hamer, the consortium’s president and CEO, has advised ONC and other tribes in the consortium not to consent to GCI’s grant proposal because the grant program suggests that, at most, one applicant from each area will be awarded funding. Hamer said that ONC backing two grant applications could be problematic.
“It has the potential to jeopardize, harm our own consortium application for our member tribes,” Hamer said.
Hamer argued that GCI shouldn’t get to use public funding to build out private infrastructure, although GCI has a history of doing just that. The company received $44 million in federal funding to build its TERRA network of microwave towers that delivers internet to Western Alaska. GCI also received a $25 million federal grant to build fiber to the Aleutian chain islands. Handyside pointed out that the company also paid millions of dollars of its own money for those projects.
Handyside said that the federal grant would cover the entire cost of installing fiber cables to Bethel, but she said there are other costs that GCI would have to pay itself.
“Building the actual piece of infrastructure is just one part,” she said. “Then you have to maintain it, connect it to the rest of the community, develop the retail plans, the sales, maintenance and operations.”
Hamer also argued that GCI should have involved ONC earlier in planning if it wanted to partner with the tribe. ONC Executive Director Zack Brink said that GCI never reached out to ONC to discuss their plans for building fiber to Bethel. But, he said, BNC did reach out this past week to discuss the project. In further criticism, Hamer also said that GCI should offer some ownership of the fiber infrastructure to ONC.
“If you’re a commercial entity and you’re just coming to a tribe, asking them for consent at the last minute, not offering anything, how would a tribe trust you? And why should a tribe give you that consent? I don’t think they should,” Hamer said.
Handyside said that at the end of the day, the difference in capability between fiber and satellite is the biggest factor. GCI’s fiber would be 40 times faster than the satellite internet that the tribal consortium is working on.
“We don’t want to just give an incremental improvement to Bethel and the surrounding communities, we want it to be transformational,” Handyside said.
Hamer said that the Y-K Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium has plans to bring fiber to the region as well, further down the road.
Handyside said that GCI expects to be awarded the grants to begin working on Bethel’s fiber infrastructure in 2022, and launch fiber service for Bethel customers in 2024.
Brink said he had no comment on GCI’s fiber proposal since the tribe’s council members had not had a chance to discuss the project.
The tribe does not have much time to decide whether to stick with its own consortium’s satellite project or go for GCI’s fiber option. The deadline for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grant is Sep. 1.