‘Like night and day’: Fiber-optic cables aim to make Y-K Delta internet faster, cheaper

a cash-only sign at a store
An internet outage on Oct. 8, 2022 knocked out Bethel store Alaska Commercial’s ability to accept credit or debit cards for several hours. (Nina Kravinsky/KYUK)

Balassa Larson had just walked out the door of Alaska Commercial in Bethel on Oct. 8. She was one of many grocery shoppers that day who arrived only to find out that the store was only accepting cash.

“It’s an inconvenience for me because I don’t carry cash,” Larson said.

AC employees said that the issue with the payment systems on Oct. 8 had to do with an internet outage that comes on the heels of an announcement about two new projects focused on bringing better internet to Bethel and some other communities in the region.

Bethel Native Corporation president Ana Hoffman is excited about one of those 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. That project’s cable will run from Dillingham to Bethel. The subsea cable will come above ground at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. On its way, it 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 that that the first phase of the $42 million project is scheduled to be done by the end of 2024.

Calista Corporation will take on a second similar effort alongside Alaska Communications. Their project will serve Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, Kwethluk and Napakiak.

Thom Leonard is a vice president at Calista. He said that students and patients who rely on telehealth will benefit from the fiber-optic cable.

“This is absolutely going to 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 that the federal government set aside for tribal broadband programs across the country. Ten percent of that will fund both Western Alaska projects.

GCI currently serves Y-K Delta communities through a microwave network. The internet signal in a microwave network relies on radio waves. GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside said that’s a slower system than fiber optics.

“The microwave network, it’s solid,” Handyside said. “Microwave is a great technology for delivering conductivity. It’s fast, but there’s a maximum capacity that it will reach. There’s a limit to the amount of data that it can carry.”

Handyside said that currently, download speeds in Bethel are around 10 megabits per second. Once the city’s on the fiber cable, she said that users will see speeds around 2,000 megabits per second.

In addition to faster speeds, Handyside said that prices will go down significantly. GCI’s Bethel customers currently pay around $300 a month for the company’s fastest plan. Once communities are hooked up to fiber, she said that they’ll be able to access urban plans. An unlimited data plan in Anchorage currently costs $180 a month.

“So 200 times faster, and more than $100 cheaper,” Handyside said. “The cost of the plans may slightly change over the years, but it’ll 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, in Bethel, starting to connect the final 20% means more than just 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 that better internet will make it easier to preserve and practice Alaska Native culture and tradition.

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