Bringing fast, reliable broadband to rural Alaska could cost $1.8 billion

During a visit to Bethel, Alaska, first lady Jill Biden highlighted hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to improve internet access in Alaska Native communities.

When first lady Jill Biden landed in Bethel, Alaska, last week to tout federal funding to improve broadband infrastructure across the state, her security team was already well aware of the region’s cellular and internet connectivity limitations.

“When the Secret Service detail came up here ahead of her, their phones didnt work,” said Bo Foley, the IT director for the city of Bethel, where only two cellphone carriers operate. “I actually had to somehow drum up 12 cellphones to loan to them.”


Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Rep. Mary Peltola, who is from Bethel, joined Biden for her historic visit. Biden highlighted federal broadband investments in Indigenous communities around the country, including $386 million in Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants going to 21 projects throughout Alaska and $125 million for two broadband infrastructure projects in Southwest Alaska’s Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, where Bethel is located.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, center, addresses a large crowd in the Bethel Regional High School gymnasium. From left: first lady Jill Biden, Rep. Mary Peltola, first lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy and Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman.
Katie Basile/High Country News

Bethel, which is home to more than 6,000 people, is a major hub for dozens of other villages in Southwest Alaska. There’s limited high-speed broadband connection here; instead, microwave transmitters deliver internet to some homes, businesses and the school district — for a steep price.

In Alaska’s major cities, fast and reliable internet is available and relatively affordable. But not in many of the state’s small communities. “In the villages, I would say that most homes do not have internet, and the primary access for internet would be through the school,” said Ana Hoffman, the president and CEO of Bethel Native Corporation.

“In the villages, I would say that most homes do not have internet.” 

Around 60,000 Alaskans lack broadband access entirely, while 200,000 Alaskans have limited access to broadband that is often too slow to stream videos or connect to a Zoom call — typically failing to go beyond 10Mbps (megabytes per second) download and 1Mbps upload speeds — according to Alaska Tribal Spectrum, a tribally owned nonprofit working to bring high-speed internet and cell reception to rural Alaska.


People lined up for hours in anticipation of appearances by first lady Jill Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Rep. Mary Peltola at Bethel Regional High School’s gymnasium.
Katie Basile/High Country News


Alaska’s sheer size and rugged landscape, the vast distances between communities and the state’s small population — only about 730,000 people live here — have made affordable, high-speed broadband delivery an overwhelming and costly task. The state broadband office estimates that it would cost $1.8 billion to deliver broadband to the nearly 200 communities across Alaska that have no access to high-speed internet.

The Lower Kuskokwim School District, which includes Bethel, is the state’s largest rural school district in terms of students served. In 2020, it was estimated that 15% of its students had internet access at home, said Kimberly Hankins, the district superintendent. Bringing fiber-optic internet to the region would mean better connectivity for students and staff and higher-quality remote learning. “With slower internet, we aren’t able to take full advantage of online learning tools and materials, so I look forward to that being more of a reality for us,” Hankins said.

“I really believe this is going to be a game-changer for economic development in rural Alaska.” 

A Starlink dish is mounted outside of a home in Bethel, Alaska. Without the option of high-speed fiber internet, many consumers have turned to satellite internet providers.
Katie Basile/High Country News

Faster, more affordable internet in rural Alaska would have other benefits, too. Health-care services like telehealth could improve care in rural regions and save people costly trips to Anchorage, where many of Alaska’s doctors reside. More accessible broadband would also create greater opportunities for economic and workforce development, enabling residents to work from home or start and manage their own businesses. “I really believe this is going to be a game-changer for economic development in rural Alaska,” said Julie Anderson, the chairperson for Alaska Tribal Spectrum’s policy board.

ALASKA TRIBAL SPECTRUM is establishing a program called the Alaska Tribal Network, or ATN. It uses tribal 2.5 GHz spectrum — the specific radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over, which the Federal Communications Commission has reserved for tribal nations — to deliver broadband and cellphone services that cost between $75 and $100 per month. That’s a fraction of the cost many rural Alaskans pay to have internet at home, if it’s even available where they live.

Aleksander Ferguson and Jacob Littlefish connect to the Kuskokwim Consortium Library's Wi-Fi network to stream YouTube videos. The library offers free internet to the public, but the connection is extremely slow and shared between multiple users.
Katie Basile/High Country News

The program plans to send to villages small receiving towers that would connect to low-Earth orbit satellites, such as Starlink or OneWeb, and deliver internet to the area. If fiber-optic cables are eventually delivered, the communities will be able pivot to that form of internet. “Many of these fiber programs are going to take years to actually come to fruition, and they will be quite expensive, too,” Anderson said. “What I like about this program is that it brings access quickly and affordably, and it maintains competition.”

The towers will also make calling 911 easier for people. “We have a fish camp on the Yukon River, and trying to use a satellite phone on the Yukon in the past has been difficult,” she said.

These new low-Earth orbit satellite internet options are a great fit for rural areas, said Foley, the IT director in Bethel. “It’s not the most perfect product yet,” Foley said. “They dont compare to a big city’s fiber-optic network, but we're still at least tenfold better than we have been over the last decade, if not more.” With satellite internet, the city still experiences outages and bandwidth issues, he said, but most outages last only a couple of minutes or so; still, that’s long enough to disrupt video calls.

Biden, Dunleavy, Hoffman and Peltola watch dancers from Ayaprun Elitnaurvik Yup'ik Immersion School perform a blessing song called “Tarvarnauramken.”
Katie Basile/High Country News

“Its hard to make things better when that type of infrastructure does not exist or will not exist because of the challenges of the environment or location, or things as silly as, ‘Oh, theres only X amount of people there, and its not worth the cost of investment,’” he said.

Hoffman, of Bethel Native Corporation, said the turnout from the Bethel community for Jill Biden’s visit — about 1,000 people — gave her hope. “I think thats what the infrastructure investment into this region does for us — it means that were valued,” she said. “It brings value and others see the value in our presence, our resilience and our perseverance.

“Were a region full of rich culture, language, spirituality, history, tradition, and we have preserved that over the generations,” Hoffman said. “Theres a lot of harmony in our region, with our relationship with each other, and our relationship with our environment. Others around the world will be able to appreciate the wisdom that is here, because that will be shared once we have the means to do so.”

Bethel, the hub community for 56 Alaska Native villages in Southwest Alaska, has received more than $100 million in federal broadband internet expansion grants.
Katie Basile/High Country News

Victoria Petersen is a freelance journalist living in Anchorage, Alaska. Previously, she was a reporting fellow at The New York Times and a High Country News intern. Follow @vgpetersen

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