ANCHORAGE, Alaska — In the Interior Alaska village of Lake Minchumina, the library offers the only Internet access -- and it's pretty slow. But that service is about to get faster in libraries across the state, thanks in large part to federal stimulus funds.
While the Internet is vital to both the Bush and the big cities, when it comes to technology rural Alaska is always playing catch-up. That’s why the Alaska State Library is intent upon bringing high-speed Internet access to many rural Alaska libraries through the Online With Libraries Project.
“When I came to Alaska as a librarian, we didn't have telephones in every community, we didn't have television in every community,” said the project’s director, Sue Sherif.
Through the OWL Program, more than $8 million -- most of it from the federal stimulus program -- will be spent to bring high-speed Internet to more than 100 libraries statewide.
Another big chunk of funding is being provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which initially thought that every community in Alaska was already linked by fiber-optic cable.
“They were shocked by our costs, they were shocked by our speeds, they were shocked by some of the geographic barriers,” Sherif said.
The federal government also had trouble absorbing the vast distances and the geographic challenges. It even inquired about parking lots at remote public libraries.
“In response to one of their questions, we sent them a picture of a parking lot at Point Hope that was all ATVs and one big truck -- and I think they got the message,” Sherif said.
This year, GCI will begin construction of Project Terra Southwest, which will link more than 60 communities in Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta. It will improve tele-medicine, distance education and help to create jobs in remote areas.
Half of the $88 million system will be paid for by federal stimulus funds while GCI's subsidiary, United Utilities, will borrow the rest.
“I think we're going to lead the world in some of the remote applications that this network will enable us to do,” said GCI’s director of broadband development, Krag Johnsen.
Right now, communities in Southwest Alaska are served by satellite. That service will be replaced with a hybrid system of microwave towers and fiber-optic cables. Some of them will go underwater, running across Cook Inlet and Lake Iliamna.
“We were actually the first to map the lake bottom of Lake Iliamna,” Johnsen said.
Derek Timez, with the Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, says these projects and others that are in the works are game-changers for rural Alaska. The partnership has struggled for years to create a pipeline for jobs via the Internet.
“You're talking about Internet speeds that the Lower 48 hasn't seen in 10 years in a lot of places,” Timez said. “In the 21st century, roads are as important as communication channels. I think that is our new road system, if you will, for Alaska.”
GCI has an ambitious timeline. It hopes to have Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta connected to high-speed Internet in the next few years.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks was awarded about $5 million for another project to promote broadband literacy. The project’s primary mission is to create jobs.
Contact Rhonda McBride at email@example.com