With massive federal funding, Western Alaska fiber optic projects prepare for rollout

fiber optic cables
Fiber optic cables (Chaitawat Pawapoowadon/Pixabay)

In May 2023, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden appeared alongside a delegation of Alaska Native leaders in a packed Bethel Regional High School gymnasium. They came to tout the Biden-Harris administration’s investments in broadband infrastructure.

The focus of the evening was the AIRRAQ network, a partnership between Bethel Native Corporation and communications provider GCI. The partnership aims to bring the same level of connectivity that users in Anchorage experience to Bethel and a dozen other communities by the end of 2027. Doing this will require roughly 900 miles of fiber-optic cables, none of which have yet been laid.

“The connections of this community are already deep. But with AIRRAQ, you will be able to bring them to life in new ways,” Biden told the crowd assembled in Bethel.

But AIRRAQ, which has secured more than $100 million in funding and is set to begin construction this summer, is only one piece of a complex patchwork of projects working toward the common goal of better rural internet access. Multiple Alaska companies have partnered with tribal entities to secure federal dollars that have come pouring in under the Biden-Harris administration.

Jill Biden
First Lady Jill Biden is flanked by Rep. Mary Peltola and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman at Bethel Regional High School on May 17, 2023. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

Increased options

The key benefit of connecting up the state’s most remote communities will be establishing networks that aren’t vulnerable to a single point of failure. This vulnerability became painfully clear less than a month after Biden’s visit to Bethel, when a subsea cable cut in the Beaufort Sea brought broadband speeds to a crawl across the western and northern reaches of the state.

“All that traffic that was offloaded onto that fiber cable folded back into that microwave system. So it was congested with a lot of users,” GCI Rural Affairs Director Jennifer Nelson said.

The microwave system Nelson refers to is part of the company’s TERRA network. It’s made up of more than 100 microwave towers and currently serves as the only land-based broadband link for communities in Western Alaska.

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A map shows GCI’s existing and proposed internet infrastructure in Alaska, including the existing TERRA microwave network and the proposed AIRRAQ network. (Courtesy GCI)

Rural residents have long criticized the TERRA network as being overpriced and unreliable, but the rise of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite providers like Starlink and OneWeb have brought more options. Following last summer’s subsea cable cut, satellite internet proved a lifesaver for many. But Nelson said that fiber-optic networks offer a more long-term solution.

“When you look at the lifespan of a fiber-optic network, it has a 35-plus year timeframe before it needs an upgrade,” Nelson said. “With LEOs, those satellites have a five to seven-year lifespan. So they’re having to put more of those up into the sky at a faster rate at a higher cost to keep up to allow that to be sustainable. So that’s quite a difference.”

Nevertheless, the federal government has shown a willingness to also invest in LEOs. It awarded $4.5 million to an entity called the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium in 2022, as part of its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. The funds will go to install Starlink for households and tribal offices in nine communities as an “interim broadband solution.”

Alaska Fiber-Optic Project

Alongside grants awarded for the AIRRAQ network, the Calista Corporation, the regional Native corporation serving Bethel, was awarded $52 million for a separate fiber internet project in partnership with Alaska Communications, GCI’s chief competitor.

Alaska Communications’ massive Alaska Fiber-Optic Project aims to bring fiber internet to more than a dozen upper Yukon River communities.

It would also include the first fiber-optic cable to bridge the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, linking the village of Holy Cross with Upper Kalskag and passing through six other lower Kuskokwim communities to end in Napakiak.

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A map shows the proposed Lower Kuskokwim Segment of Alaska Communications’ Alaska Fiber Optic Project. In 2022, the Calista Corporation received $52 million in funding for the segment through the federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (Courtesy Alaska Communications)

The network would bring 1-gigabit-per-second speeds – slower than GCI’s promised 2.5-gigabit speeds, but still considered very fast.

Alaska Communications Vice President of External Affairs and Corporate Communications Heather Cavanaugh said that the project has secured more than $150 million in federal funding.

“We’re fortunate in Alaska that we have a lot of need and there are many different funding sources available,” Cavanaugh said. “And we’re going after as many of them as we can to build as much infrastructure for our state as we possibly can.”

The portions of the Alaska Fiber-Optic Project that have been funded are scheduled for completion by the end of 2026. But around $50 million in funding is still needed for the segment connecting up the middle Yukon River communities of Ruby, Galena, Nulato, Kaltag, and Holy Cross. If successful, the project as a whole would run more than 800 miles of fiber-optic cables in Alaska’s two longest rivers: the Yukon and Kuskokwim.

Tribal consultation

Cavanaugh said that Alaska Communications has made efforts with both Calista and another regional corporation partner, Doyon Limited, to inform tribal stakeholders about the cables that will run through their rivers and across their traditional lands.

“We have had a chance to spend time in and visit with people in every one of the communities we’ll be serving, making sure they understand what we’re doing, that we answer any questions, and that we’re working together on where we’re bringing the fiber,” Cavanaugh said.

There have also been efforts to inform communities about the AIRRAQ network. As the face of the project, Bethel Native Corporation (BNC) CEO Ana Hoffman said that she has been honored to facilitate the tribal consultation process. She said that having the consent of tribes in place early on was critical for capturing federal funds as they came available.

“That’s where we started with BNC and GCI. We met with each of the tribal councils in advance of submitting the application to get the tribal consent in place prior to our submission,” Hoffman said. “So it really did start locally with those conversations.”

And staying ahead of the game has allowed the proposed scope of the AIRRAQ network to expand. Surveying and permitting are currently underway for hundreds of miles of subsea fiber-optic cables tracing the Bering Sea coast all the way to Emmonak near the mouth of the Yukon River. This would bring the AIRRAQ network within around 120 miles of the existing fiber network serving Nome, operated by Quintillion.

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A map shows the scope of the AIRRAQ network that has been funded as of February 2024. (Courtesy GCI)

GCI said that fiber-optic cables crossing the tundra, such as those connecting Bethel with the tundra villages of Atmautluak, Kasigluk, and Nunapitchuk, will be laid in the winter. The company said that they will naturally sink down into the protection of the spongy tundra with the spring thaw.

Both GCI and Bethel Native Corporation said that they considered potential threats to subsistence harvests and game migrations as part of the surveying and consultation process. Hoffman said that in-person visits to communities have helped ease concerns.

“When people feel the fiber in their hands, there’s a greater understanding of how this will be once it’s laid on the tundra, and that their sno-go should be able to go right over the top of it,” Hoffman said.

According to GCI Rural Fiber Program Manager Rebecca Markley, the company has completed successful tundra lays on previous projects in the Bristol Bay region.

“We laid it on the tundra and it buried itself,” Markley said.

Markley said that timing is of the essence when it comes to laying cable on the tundra.

“Weather is always, always an issue. If we have to do work in the wintertime and we miss that window, or the winter is a shorter season. And when I say winter, I mean solid ground, has to be super frozen, especially if there’s deep water we have to get across,” Markley said.

Urban plans and pricing

If the weather does cooperate, both Alaska Communications and GCI have touted the benefits of providing communities off the road system with urban plans and pricing. But for now, the costs and reliability of broadband in rural Alaska remain pressure points for rural communities.

One of the only options for households that can’t afford the costs of staying connected, the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, stopped accepting applications on Feb. 7 due to a lack of funding from Congress.

The program currently provides monthly broadband subsidies of $75 for more than 200 households in Western Alaska, but is likely to end in May 2024. Affected households are now directed to apply for another federal program called Lifeline, which would provide monthly payments of $34.25 to households on qualifying tribal lands.

Despite questions of affordability, the uncertainties of funding, and the massive logistical challenges that come with rural Alaska fiber, Hoffman said that the networks will be transformational.

“We’re going from a one-lane road where if a four-wheeler or a car is approaching, you have to kind of go into the willows or the brush and scrape the side of your vehicle to get past each other, to a six-lane highway,” Hoffman said. “It’s going to improve our quality and standard of living.”

When this change will come and the final scope of the massive projects being constructed by Alaska’s largest telecoms remain unclear. But starting this summer, residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta will likely see cables start to be unspooled.

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