Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial
Alaska’s first permanent communications connection to the outside world was first established 110 years ago, as the USS Burnside chugged into port at Sitka, finished laying an underwater telegraph cable from Seattle, and made the first transmission out of the territory. At the time, the ability to send messages instantaneously from the rugged land seemed miraculous. Today, we take that connection for granted, and even momentary hiccups or disruptions in our connection to the rest of the world have major effects on business, personal communications and recreational use of the Internet or television broadcasts.
But for all the improvements that have been made to the state’s communication infrastructure since that first undersea cable in 1904, Alaska still lags in ensuring all its residents have access to high-speed data connections, a problem it would be wise to rectify.
Alaska is one of the states with the highest percentage of residents connected to broadband already — as of 2012, 83 percent of the state’s residents reported having Internet access, and 73 percent reported having higher-speed broadband connections. Given the state’s distance from the rest of the country and the world, data connections are especially crucial. Also, the concentration of a high percentage of the state’s residents in just a few areas make it relatively easier to reach a substantial portion of Alaskans.
The issue comes in connecting that final quarter of the state’s population to broadband. Residents who don’t have broadband connections largely are in far-flung rural communities, mostly off the road system. Providing access to these residents will be neither or easy nor cheap. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. The Alaska Broadband Task Force reported last year that 21,000 households in the state still don’t have access to broadband connections, and fully half the nation’s “anchor institutions” like libraries, hospitals and municipal governments that don’t have broadband access are located here in Alaska. A report by the University of Alaska’s Institute for Social and Economic Research estimates that full broadband access would generate $49 million per year in increased revenue.
Fortunately, the state has a plan, and an ambitious one at that. The Alaska Broadband Task Force, working in concert with the state Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, has set a goal of 100 percent broadband coverage in the state by 2020. And not just any broadband, but a 100 megabit-per-second connection that dwarfs even the best residential plans currently available in the state. Using federal funds aimed at increasing U.S. broadband connectivity, the task force has drawn up an ambitious scheme for infrastructure buildout of both fiber and wireless microwave broadband to communities across the state.
Needless to say, it won’t be a cheap process. The task force estimates the buildout cost at about $1.2 billion, part of which they hope will be funding privately and part by the state and federal governments. Unfortunately, it’s a poor time to propose expensive large-scale infrastructure projects at both the state and national level, so the goal of 100 megabit connections may fall apart well before the 2020 goal. That would be too bad, because as time passes, high-speed connectivity will only become more crucial for all Alaskans.