Alaska Is A Big Winner In The RDOF & It’s A Failure Before It Even Started

Alaska has long been a focus of government funding to help solve the digital divide.  It’s geographic challenges, low population density and vast space presents many challenges to broadband across the state.

Although the digital divide is present in practically every state across the US, in Alaska it would be better referred to as a digital chasm.

Given Alaska’s relatively low population, it’s not particularly surprising the total number of people that have no access to broadband is comparatively low.

What’s stark is the percentage of our population that lack access to broadband.  Nearly 19% of Alaska’s total population lack access to broadband connectivity.  That’s the highest percentage of the population, or largest digital divide, in the entire US.

This doesn’t even begin to touch on the subject of access to “affordable” broadband.  Alaska features some of the highest costs for internet connectivity in the entire United States.

A Brief Primer On RDOF

RDOF, or the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, is the largest ever investment of US taxpayer dollars into major US carriers to help solve the digital divide.

At the direction of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), over 20 billion dollars will be infused into network carriers over the course of a decade to provide gigabit level connectivity to US homes.

This investment was primarily aimed at rural, underserved locations.  This represents the overwhelming majority of those on the “wrong side” of the digital divide.

It was divided into two major phases,  Phase 1 was intended to bridge divides where no connectivity currently exists exists.  Phase 2 was to be used to increase connectivity in partially served areas.

This concept is not new.  Before RDOF there were funds like Connect America (funded via USF, or the Universal Service Fee, a tax levied on all telecom connections) that provided big projects aimed at similar goals.

For a decade or more, Alaska has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of Connect America.

With the unprecedented size of RDOF’s funding levels, carriers, fiber providers and other internet service providers have made great strides to try and get pieces of that massive outlay of cash.

Over one billion of those total dollars is going to Alaska!

The Tribal Aspect Of RDOF

A major focus of RDOF was placed into indigenous people and tribes, a group that has consistently been marginalized by federal funding for broadband connectivity.

In many states, fiber routes literally bypass tribal reservations.  Sometimes for good reasons like inabilities to come to agreements, but often it’s just the incohesive relationship between state, Federal and tribal governance.  It was simply easier to “go around.”

As such, tribes and US reservation land are vastly underserved when it comes to broadband.  It has created vast inequity and is among the largest of the digital divides in America.

Thus, a big part of the RDOF was aimed at attempting to rectify these challenges.  Large portions of money were reserved specifically for funding tribal areas.

Tying back into Alaska, we are the home of the United States largest tribal populations.  (Proudly, I might add!)  Over 50% of the entire tribal population across the US lives in Alaska!

Unlike the lower 48, however, these tribes were never relegated to specific locations like “Indian reservations.”  Having learned much from the mis-steps and exploitation of mainland US tribes, the Alaskan indigenous negotiated much better deals.

Unlike the lower 48, Alaska’s indigenous and non-natives live completely among one another, occupying the same lands and same spaces.  As it probably should have been from the get-go.

Thus, in Alaska, this tribal focused RDOF funding will be used to generally fund broadband connectivity across Alaska.  This means that, in Alaska, the tribal-focused funding will benefit both the indigenous and non-natives alike!

The Root Of Conflict, Bad Data!

As long as the Federal government has been trying to solve the problems with the digital divides in America has been the struggle to get “good data” about current connectivity.

For years, poor mapping data of existing connectivity drove many poor decisions.  This opened up many conflicts, the biggest of which is the fact that billions of dollars in investment have hardly changed the actual landscape.

To people like me, this oversight of “bad data” was extremely obvious and has been for a long time.  We even have a phrase for this, “Crap in, crap out.”

The US congress, state representatives and what I’d call “broadband influencers” (typically research outfits) finally came to this same conclusion after realizing the inefficacy of previous, long sustained investments.

Ultimately, this led to the US Congress to mandate that the FCC correct this major oversight.  It required broadband data be collected at the individual address level.  Prior to this, it was tracked at the US census district level.

To make a much longer story short, in 2022, the FCC released this new data to the public.

Turns Out, Big Data Is Hard

While we’re sure that US congress, state representatives and other interests had great hope for this new data set, it was underwhelming.

It was again based on the flawed information that US carriers submitted to the FCC.  Many who looked up connectivity options for their address were surprised by falsehoods.

Countless carriers were claiming addresses were “served” when the people who lived at these locations were certain they weren’t.  Some have been quoted astronomical rates to get service, like $60 thousand dollars and above.  Yet, they are marked as “served” by broadband on the map!

This “blew up” in quite a few news stories with major carriers receiving the brunt of these deceptive reports.  It wasn’t exactly uncommon, either.

For Alaskan’s, these same discrepancies were apparent, but unfortunately our low population doesn’t carry much weight in the mainstream press.

This is an example in my immediate rural neighborhood.  Many of these homes are “claimed” to be served with 1gbps connectivity, but the majority of them cannot get that access from the carrier at any cost.  Hundreds of homes are affected by this reporting problem in just this neighborhood!

Unfortunately, there are no penalties against carriers for inaccurate reporting of data.  There are more incentives for carriers to lie about their coverage and capabilities than there are incentives not to.

So, again, we have yet another “Crap in, crap out” situation brewing…

Correcting The Bad Data, In Theory

One of the “good things” that the FCC did was to create a mechanism where users could report inaccurate data about their household’s broadband access.

In theory, this was to help correct some of the long standing issues with accurate reporting.  In theory, a household could do the following:

  • If a carrier incorrectly reported connectivity to a US household, that household could dispute the inaccuracy.
  • This dispute would be sent to the carrier, who would review and/or correct the inaccurately reported data.
  • If the carrier was able to service the household, they had to be able to do so in a certain manner.  Such as, within 10 business days, at “reasonable” expense to the household and was basically “certifying” the carrier’s information was true and correct.
  • If the carrier was unable to service the household, they would update their data with the FCC and the connectivity map for that household would be corrected.
  • If the carrier failed to respond, the FCC would automatically rule “in favor” of the household and update the inaccurate data reported by the carrier.

My home was affected by this incorrect reporting.  I submitted a challenge with the FCC.  While it did nothing to provide me access to high speed internet, at least I corrected the data set.

In practice, however, this hasn’t worked out as intended.

The real problem is that most people aren’t paying any bit of attention to the FCC.

An overwhelming majority of people have no clue there’s a broadband map.  Even less know that it’d be in their best interests to challenge inaccuracies.

I’d be surprised if even one out of every hundred households knew that this was a thing.  Scaled up, voluntary reporting is unlikely to barely make a dent in the vast inaccuracies that carriers are reporting!

Meanwhile, we’re making decisions about where to spend billions of dollars before we even have accurate data of who is and who isn’t all ready connected to high speed internet!

RDOF In Practice, At Least In My Hometown

So, as reported here, we basically know that all of this funding is essentially “shooting blind.”

In 2023, the decisions started getting handed down on who the winners and losers would be when it came to RDOF funding.

And this is where the failure of bad data becomes absolutely apparent.

I wasn’t expecting that my specific broadband challenges would be solved by any of this RDOF funding.  I was hopeful, but not much, since my household was inaccurately identified as being “served” by mythical, non-existent connectivity.

Crap in, crap out as I said.

Fairbanks was a big winner for RDOF funding.  A large chunk of money, nearly $51 million dollars, was granted to Doyon to help solve the digital divide in Fairbanks and the surrounding area.

I was really hopeful the money would at least be used to actually solve the digital divide.

As I looked over the “funded” areas, a disturbing trend became extremely apparent.

We weren’t solving the digital divide.  At all.

Here’s an example neighborhood.  Yellow means it was funded by RDOF, the black circle surrounding the yellow means the household is all ready served by 1gbps+ connectivity.  Every single home in this image has existing high speed connectivity!

Practically every RDOF funded neighborhood has those same yellow with black circles.  RDOF is being used to provide all these people a second high speed internet connection!

At least in the Fairbanks area, I’d estimate that 90% or more of the households within the “funded” areas are all ready served by high speed (1gpbs+) internet services.

One of the key aspects of the RDOF funding was these entities competing for funding had to identify and justify the specific places (i.,e. exact US households) where they would use the funding to improve connectivity.  This specific funding data was to be published, publicly by the FCC and that’s the data I’m showing you in these images.

Sure, a few households were funded for connectivity that previously did not have any broadband access.  But, it’s very clearly in the minority of households that have been funded.

You really have to hunt for locations funded by RDOF that don’t currently have access to 1gbps+ connectivity. (Yellow dot without a black circle)  In this example, about 20 total homes will gain connectivity.  But, hundreds more nearby will just get a second high speed internet option due to the RDOF funding.

Large swaths of funded areas all ready have access to high speed internet.  In Fairbanks, Alaska alone, we’re literally using most of the funded $51 million dollars to bring people a second high speed internet option.

I’ve been around rural connectivity for long enough that I probably should have expected this.  But, I thought maybe this time we were actually interested in solving the problems.

The Same Problems, The Same (Wrong) Solutions

Ultimately, the problem with solving the digital divide is obvious.  It’s expensive.

And the return on investment is not within a typical business expectations.  Businesses want to see their money back in two years.  In the rural connectivity game, it can be 6 to 10 years.

So, instead of funding those really expensive problems, it appears we’re just doing what we’ve always done.

Serve the most servable.  Connect the most connectable.  Profit from the most profitable.

So, at least in Fairbanks, what we can expect is major Fiber to the Home projects will be used to serve existing GCI multi-gigabit customers.

The project will “look” successful as these carriers will be able to point at all these households that they were able to serve.  No one will question whether they actually needed to be served.

Press releases will look great and tens of thousands will be paraded as being helped by RDOF funding!

Carriers will get their piece of the pie and of course that good, sweet recurring revenue.  Without having to spend a single dime of their own money, even!

Yet again, the government will pick the winners (certain carriers) and the losers will continue to be the people on the other side of the digital divide.

We will again eventually realize that we can’t make good decisions about how to spend billions of dollars without first having accurate, quality data about the problem we’re trying to solve.

Maybe the government will finally “get it” the third, fourth or tenth time around.

Maybe It Won’t Be All Bad

There’s little doubt that the ONE BILLION dollars being offered to Alaska in the RDOF funding will be entirely misspent and mal-invested.

There will be projects that actually solve the digital divide for some.  Some people will be helped.

It’d be almost impossible to spend a billion dollars in the State of Alaska and not have it actually benefit someone in the way it was intended.

We’re not trying to paint this picture as all doom and gloom.  Rather, just trying to point at the obvious faults and problems that are immediately apparent.

One of the big challenges with serving Alaska’s rural communities is that some of the rural communities that will benefit from the RDOF will not make a major dent in the population served by broadband.

You could serve fifty 200 person villages, at great expense, and you’ve still only served 1% more of of the population.

The truth is more difficult to digest.  Many of the villages aren’t even 200 people, making that “needle movement” even worse.

When you combine that with what we’ve stated about more urban areas like Fairbanks, we’re not going to truly move the needle on the digital divide that much.  Even with a billion dollars.

It’s completely fair that both urban and rural locations in Alaska receive the RDOF funding.  I’m just astonished the urban portions will largely be spent on unnecessary, secondary high speed internet connections!

RDOF was intended to serve rural and urban broadband connectivity access issues, not to provide secondary high speed internet options to people that all ready have broadband internet access.

I am certain this is being done in the “interests” of generating competition.  But, be assured, that will not result in better connectivity or resolution of the digital divide.  If it was, the digital divide wouldn’t still exist to begin with.

While other states will largely close the digital divide with this funding, Alaska’s lack of broadband access will remain high.

If I had to make a guess, at the end of the RDOF funding, 16% of the population will remain unserved by broadband in ten year’s time and RDOF will work for merely 2% of Alaska’s population.

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