It’s fairly easy to argue that Alaska is a challenging state to provide internet services within. It’s big, the density of people somewhat low and there’s a lot of challenging geography involved.
Whether you’re living in the Western villages or maybe just outside of a major city in Alaska, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced the digital divide in Alaska.
Anchorage Heavily Skew’s Alaska’s Broadband Statistics
When you look at average connectivity rates and speeds for Alaska, we’re seemingly not that bad off.
Over 77% of Alaska’s population has 1 gig connectivity! That might seem like a great statstic, but there’s an inconvenient fact behind it.
The inflated levels of Alaska’s connectivity is largely thanks to the fact that the majority of Alaska’s entire population lives in Anchorage, Matanuska and the surrounding area.
When you go outside of that area, though, broadband drops off a cliff very quickly.
The reality is that Alaska is regularly ranked “the worst” or “almost the worst” for general internet connectivity in the entire United States.
From smaller cities like Fairbanks to the countless villages and smaller towns across the state, the “rest” of Alaska has gotten the shaft when it comes to internet connectivity.
Why Billions Upon Billions Gets Us Nowhere
Despite billions of dollars being poured into the solution, for over a decade now, it seems there’s very little progress from year to year. The digital divide remains.
Alaska has two major problems when it comes to connectivity:
- Middle mile connectivity (city to city, city to village and village to village)
- Last mile connectivity (home to home, city to rural, even intercity connectivity)
Surprisingly, connectivity to the state itself is not at all an obstacle. With multiple sub-sea fiber networks and even a terrestrial fiber network connecting Alaska to the lower 48, Alaska enjoys every bit of modern state-level connectivity that other states enjoy.
Carriers are regularly putting up 40Gbit and 100Gbit links to the lower 48. Along with a litany of other private, high speed links as well.
It’s maddeningly true that many of those billions have been truly squandered. We’ve seen carriers do some pretty whacky stuff:
- Fiber to the home, with a slow 25mbit satellite uplink shared among an entire village
- Countless miles of fiber, brought by tens of thousands of people’s homes, just to feed low speed connections like DSL
- High speed fiber links brought to places only to see zero interest or effort placed into last mile connectivity
- “Just enough” fiber is brought into an area to serve immediate needs. No thought towards expansion or future connectivity needs.
- Heavy investment into inferior technologies that “barely” meet regulatory minimums
On a regular basis over the years, billions of dollars have been sunk and completely squandered into pointless projects. There has been no aim or concise effort to holistically solve the connectivity problems within Alaska.
Corruption At Every Level Of Broadband
Whenever you have massive infusion of government cash to try and “improve” things, some people are going to work hard at trying to get a slice of that pie.
I’ve been to multiple “broadband initiative” conferences relating to Alaska’s connectivity. There are a ridiculous number of “consultants” and agencies that are siphoning off all that funding.
These agencies do absolutely nothing to actually provide internet connectivity. From what I gather, they put together fancy reports that state obvious things that are easily researched. These people “schmooze” politicians and grease the skids to empower their own existence, little more.
Yet, we still have wildly inaccurate broadband data across the state, despite so called “watchdogs” making sure things have proper oversight and accurate data sets to work with.
When you look over the FCC’s reporting from Alaska’s carriers, the corruption becomes even more evident. Our carriers are regularly trying to skirt the requirements, fail to report properly and are otherwise regularly reprimanded by the FCC.
It’s not an accident that GCI has been involved in multi-million dollar lawsuits that have been levied by the Feds.
Or that the former Quintillion’s CEO literally served jail time for fraud related to the investment in the Nome to Fairbanks fiber optic network.
Corruption is ripe whenever there are large piles of cash being thrown around.
Old Thinking Permeates Alaskan’s Carriers
For at least a decade now, carriers and competitive ISP’s across the lower 48 have come to realize that fiber optics is 100% the future of any connectivity.
We’ve gotten to a point, technologically, where the old cable TV and traditional telecom copper networks are obsolete. There was a time, 10 years ago, where it might have been worth trying to eek every bit we could out of them. But, the era of gigabit and multi-gigabit connectivity makes these obsolete.
There are very good reasons the FCC has given up on telecom infrastructure as a possible conduit for solving connectivity issues.
This was obvious when they set the minimum speed for broadband at 25mbps down and 3mbps up. At the time, this unilaterally disqualified DSL technology completely from providing broadband connectivity.
It took years for DSL technology to achieve those minimum speeds, well after the regulations were set. Even though current VDSL technology can achieve 50mbps speeds today, it’s only a matter of time until the regulators set minimums to 100mbps! The cycle begins all over again!
This acceptance that the technologies of 40-60 years ago are obsolete has yet to truly come to Alaska. Sure, there is fiber. Tens of thousands of miles of it.
But, there’s still this hope that we can use old, dilapidated infrastructure to somehow solve the problems of modern connectivity.
Another example of this “old thinking” is GCI’s Terra network that largely serves Western Alaska. Instead of putting massive federal dollars towards fiber optic networks that could be infinitely expanded, a half measure using old microwave technology was installed.
Was it cheaper? Yes. Is it obsolete less than 10 years later? Also yes.
None of the carriers are looking at major plans to replace or modernize the infrastructure. None use their own profits to improve Alaska’s infrastructure. It’s always written off as “too expensive” or “too difficult.”
Somehow these networks were funded originally? It’s like we’re pretending these cables just magically got in the ground and we didn’t put a lot of time and money into putting them there to begin with?
Also interestingly, it’s not “too expensive” elsewhere?
Even in rural areas, carriers across the lower 48 are modernizing network delivery with fiber optics.
Eventually, this thinking will get to Alaska. But, it’s going to take a power shift to make it happen.
No Carrot To Make Things Better
One of the most obvious stumbling blocks to modernizing Alaska’s connectivity is that there’s no incentive for them to do so.
Whether the carriers provide a good experience or not, these companies will get millions and billions of dollars from the Federal government. From the Fed’s perspective, there isn’t a choice as no one else is doing it.
Countless Alaskan carriers have operated in complete stasis over the years, while the world moves on past them. When there is no competition, or you’re just “marginally better” than the competition, there’s nothing pushing these companies to revolutionize their methods.
Even with those massive cash infusions from our tax dollars, there’s no incentive to re-think the entire premise and achieve any level of greatness. The technical goal is to just get marginally better than the competition. After all, if the feds pay for it today, these carriers are betting they’ll still pay for it tomorrow.
It’s quite literally the long game of ensuring funding to your organization.
It’s not until competition starts nabbing customers that the carriers decide they’re losing too much money. Unfortunately, this takes place a snail’s pace as often times, the competition are competitive ISP’s (like WISP’s) that have less funding and often don’t get sizeable grants and cash infusions to improve their networks.
Alaska’s Connectivity Interests Were Sold Off Long Ago
Curiously, both of Alaska’s major carriers (Alaska Communications and General Communications, Inc) are no longer owned and operated within Alaska.
GCI started the trend, selling off the companies interests to Liberty Media in 2015. Liberty Media “barely” has telecommunications interests as part of its holding, primarily being a media company and owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
Alaska Communications soon followed that trend. In 2021, they sold all interests in the business to ATN International for $343 million. This means Alaska’s connectivity interests reside in the eastern US.
While there certainly is still presence in Alaska for these two companies, the primary decision making and investment strategy no longer holds Alaskan’s interests at the forefront.
This same kind of thing is even hitting the rural carriers that service Alaska’s villages. For example, Nome’s former TelAlaska internet services are now provided by FastWyre. This company largely focuses on Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska and Louisiana.
So, with the primary controlling interests of Alaska’s primary carriers being “money makers” and not “how can we solve Alaska’s issues,” these carriers are unlikely to bring any kind of radical thinking that requires major investment into the state.
The Only Hope, Micro ISP’s & Fiber Networks
All of these issues create a pretty large vacuum for Alaska’s internet connectivity. Alaska is ripe for some radical re-thinking of how to provide modern day internet connectivity.
Despite miles of fiber going past tens of thousands of people’s homes and neighborhoods, I don’t expect any of our major carriers to start bringing “fiber to the home” any time soon.
When you look at who’s solving the digital divide in Alaska, it’s largely been wireless ISP’s. I’ve reviewed a couple of them on my blog here. These folks are pushing further and further into uncovered territories.
But, sadly, with the lackluster competition from Alaska’s primary carriers, there’s still no interest in doing anything revolutionary. None of these WISP’s are bringing gigabit connections or “fiber killer” technologies to the table.
They are caught up in the same issues that plague the major carriers. They just need to be “marginally better” than the major carriers to get customers to sign up, all day long.
Alaska is ripe for companies that radically re-think the entire premise of internet connectivity. To design networks around Alaska and for Alaskans.
The true hope for Alaska’s connectivity will come from micro ISP’s that actually start pulling fiber to the home. It’s going to happen one neighborhood at a time.
Whether they use multi-gigabit wireless backhauls or tap into terrestrial fiber for their uplink, this is what I think the future of Alaska’s broadband needs will look like.
Once that starts happening, you’ll see the major carriers start to jump into action. But, not before whomever those companies take a big slice of the pie. They’ll start getting those Federal funds and believe you me, that’s when we’ll see the radical change that Alaska needs to see to solve our broadband problems!