On Friday, a bill that would pave the way for improved and equitable high-speed internet in rural Alaska passed out of its final House committee. Next, the bill will head to the House floor for a vote. Its Senate counterpart is still in committee.
Earlier this year, the U.S. passed a federal infrastructure bill that set aside $65 billion for broadband projects in the U.S. It prioritizes unserved and underserved communities. This state bill sets up systems that would make Alaska eligible for that funding.
The representative who wrote the bill, Bryce Edgmon, said that Alaska stands to gain at least $1 billion to $2 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure. He said that when you account for broadband dollars headed to tribes, that actual amount will likely be much higher.
Edgmon’s bill does three main things. First, it creates a broadband office. Second, it sets up an advisory board. And third, it sets up a broadband “parity fund” to equalize costs.
The broadband office would be in charge of applying for, receiving and distributing federal dollars. But first, it will have to create a map that shows where Alaskans have limited or no access to high-speed internet.
The advisory board would include nine governor-appointed members. Two of them would have to come from unserved or underserved communities.
The bill also aims to make high-speed internet affordable for all Alaskans. It would set up a broadband parity fund that would keep costs in rural areas similar to the costs in urban areas. Edgmon said that the money for this program would come from the federal government.
This would be a change from how things are now. In rural areas of Alaska, residents with low-speed internet can pay hundreds of dollars per month on their bills. Alaskans in urban areas pay far less for high-speed internet.
The bill also requires that the office be “technologically neutral.” That means they can’t favor one type of internet technology over another, like satellites over fiber-optic cables. As long as the technology is high-speed, it’s good to go.
Two callers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta called in to provide public testimony on the bill: Chief Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak, from the Kuskokwim Tribal Broadband Consortium, and Mark Springer, a consultant for the same organization. Both advocated for the bill.
“We want to allow everyone to have equal access to the funds, especially our tribes,” Williams Sr. said.
Akiak is the first community with high-speed internet in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, having set up satellite internet over the summer.
The House vote for the broadband bill is not yet scheduled.