Most of us living in urban and suburban areas take the speed of the internet for granted. No longer a luxury, it has become an integral part of our daily life. Unfortunately, many of our most rural communities do not share that experience. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has made bridging the nation’s digital divide a priority. From Alaska to Washington, DC, this is a worthwhile and transformative effort that requires focus and leadership from federal regulators and elected officials.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 35 percent of the nation’s rural residents, or about 22 million Americans, have no access to broadband, while less than 5 percent of urban residents are similarly unconnected. At a time when the internet can bring better care and educational tools to our rural communities and bring the modern economy to their doorstep, the digital divide is getting in the way.
The very remoteness and isolation that makes connectivity so transformative in rural communities also makes it exceedingly difficult and expensive to deploy. Nowhere is this digital divide more prevalent, and opportunities for success more apparent, than in Alaska, the nation’s largest and most geographically dispersed state.
For GCI, Alaska’s largest telecommunications service provider, these challenges made the completion of our Terrestrial for Every Rural Region in Alaska (TERRA) project, a 3,300-mile rural high-speed broadband network launched in 2009 and finished in October, even more rewarding. TERRA delivers high-speed broadband access to 45,000 Alaskans in 84 communities that are spread across an area the size of Texas. The network serves more than 160 schools and medical clinics throughout Western Alaska, a region where the average community has a population of less than 1,000 people and the rugged terrain makes snowmachines (known as “snowmobiles” to non-Alaskans) and small planes the most practical mode of transportation.
The Last Frontier is home to some of the most rugged geography in North America. The remote locations, unpredictable weather and unforgiving conditions present daunting construction challenges and leave little room for error. Many communications companies were understandably reluctant to build and maintain a network in these conditions over such a vast, but sparsely populated, area.
The extreme isolation of many rural Alaska communities makes that mission even more critical. Broadband infrastructure provides the connectivity to support education, healthcare and to help local economies thrive.
Construction of the Alaskan network was possible because of collaboration with state and federal agencies and our elected leaders in Juneau and Washington, D.C. The collaborative efforts led to sustainable funding sources that have unleashed private investment in Alaska and in remote areas across the nation that are otherwise unlikely to attract private capital.
While significant progress in broadband deployment has been made, due in part to the FCC’s action to support broadband through its Universal Service programs, these advances are not occurring broadly or quickly enough. Despite the fact that the digital divide is long standing and will not be easily bridged, continued partnership between state and federal leaders along with service providers, holds tremendous opportunity.
In addition to loans, loan guarantees and grants for broadband infrastructure deployment, a wide array of policy instruments are currently available to federal policymakers. Investing in high-quality infrastructure projects produces substantial economic, social and health care benefits while laying the foundation for a productive, sustainable economy for the 21st century. By continuing to support approaches that direct resources to rural communities, policymakers can ensure that the economy works for everyone.
Ron Duncan is co-founder and CEO of GCI, a telecommunications service provider in Alaska.