Federal broadband officials tout ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to expand internet access in Alaska

Assistant Commerce Secretary Alan Davidson speaks at a broadband summit in Anchorage on Aug. 9, 2022. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

A group of federal officials is in Alaska this week to learn about the unique challenges the state faces when it comes to broadband connectivity. 

Speaking at a broadband summit Tuesday morning in Anchorage, Assistant Commerce Secretary Alan Davidson told the audience that the federal infrastructure bill — signed by President Joe Biden — will send a lot of money to Alaska over the next five years to bolster broadband access. 

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Davidson said. “People say that, but it’s quite true. These kinds of resources, they don’t come along very often. We’re going to spend tens of billions of dollars in this country. We’re going to spend billions here in Alaska, most likely.”

Alaska Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan coordinated Tuesday’s summit, bringing together state, tribal and federal officials to discuss the broadband internet in the state and the incoming funds. The infrastructure bill allocates $65 billion across the country to help ensure people have access to affordable high-speed internet.

Alaska Federation of Natives co-chair Ana Hoffman said the federal funding could be a huge help in Alaska, which Davidson described as one of the least connected states in the country, when it comes to broadband. During of one the summit’s panels, Hoffman underscored the need to bridge the digital divide between Alaska and the rest of the nation. 

“All the players have a chance to participate in this process and really bring solutions to our communities that are so desperate for them, and look forward to them,” Hoffman said. “It’s really bringing this first-class service to first-class people. And we deserve it.” 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy signs a bill establishing an Alaska Office of Broadband to coordinate federal funds received by the state. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Davidson also announced an agreement between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to streamline the permitting process for high-speed internet projects on tribal lands. 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy described the announcement as “huge.” 

“You don’t want to start gearing up folks to be trained to be laying down fiber, to the tune of thousands of individuals, connecting some of the broadband and there’s no job yet because we’re still drawing out the permitting process,” Dunleavy said.

At the summit, Dunleavy also signed a bill that establishes an Office of Broadband, which will coordinate federal funding the state receives for broadband projects. The bill also establishes a statewide Broadband Advisory Board.

In addition to the summit, Sullivan is also accompanying the federal officials on trips to Bethel and other Yukon-Kuskokwim villages as well as Kodiak later this week. They already made stops in Fairbanks and Tanana. 

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Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org.