Some $116.5 million in federal funding for rural broadband is heading to Alaska. About a quarter of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant money will go towards expanding fiber optic network connections on Prince of Wales Island.
Affordable high-speed internet is closer to becoming a reality for more than 1,200 residents on Prince of Wales Island.
That’s because of a $29.3 million grant that was awarded to Alaska Power and Telephone by the USDA “ReConnect” program. The Alaska telecom company is also kicking in $9 million of its own money.
That all funds what AP&T is calling the SEALink South project. It’s a fiber-to-the-premises connection for the communities of Craig, Klawock and Hollis. It’ll provide high-speed internet connections of at least 100 megabits per second.
The grant was part of the third round of the federal program’s distribution. In total, 11 states received grants in this round. That includes Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Arkansas, Idaho, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and North Dakota. Overall, $400 million was distributed in round three, according to information from the department.
The Biden administration announced the grants on Wednesday in a press call.
White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu said it’s an effort to ensure rural residents are able to participate in the 21st-century economy.
“Rural communities are the backbone of our nation and have a broad impact on our economy,” Landrieu said. “But for too long, our rural communities have been left out, left behind, and under-recognized for their contributions. We’re changing that, and it starts with making sure our rural communities are connected to affordable, reliable, high speed internet.”
AP&T vice president Jason Custer said the fiber optic network will be a big upgrade.
“These are definitely underserved locations,” Custer said. “And we provide the best service that we’re able to, but that depends upon the strength of the infrastructure in the communities, and also the backhaul infrastructure out of the communities.”
He said the grant could put the areas on par with urban communities.
“The investment is going to really improve the quality of life on Prince of Wales Island, and to give people new opportunities and hope for the future,” Custer explained.
SEALink South will bring fiber optic networks to an estimated 1,236 residents, 45 businesses and a school in Craig, Klawock and Hollis.
AP&T estimates that the cable’s marine route survey, permitting and environmental review will happen around 2023. Actual construction is expected to start between 2024 and 2027.
It’s the second time AP&T has scored federal funding for fiber optic networks on Prince of Wales Island. And the company says its first SEALink program is actually running two years ahead of schedule — the company expects to start laying a 214-mile submarine fiber optic cable linking Coffman Cove with Juneau in November. Installation in the homes of Kasaan and Coffman Cove residents is expected to start next year.
AP&T plans to enroll in both the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, and the Affordable Connectivity Program.
Both target low-income customers, and provide adjusted monthly rates and discounts to low-income households. The programs also provide discounts and assistance purchasing items like tablets or computers.
In the case for those living on tribal lands, they automatically qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program if they participate in a Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance program, a tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or a tribal Head Start program, among others.
Prince of Wales Island wasn’t the only area in Alaska to benefit from a fiber optic grant. The USDA program also awarded $34 million to the Bristol Bay Telephone Cooperative, $31 million to the Bethel area Unicom Company, and $21 million to the Cordova Telephone Cooperation. All told, the federal grants are estimated to connect more than 5,400 Alaskans to high-speed broadband.
And a number of small villages and communities also will benefit from fiber optic connection from these grants. The Bristol Bay area’s grant also covers Dillingham, the Lake and Peninsula Borough, New Stuyahok, Levelock, King Salmon, New Koliganek, Naknek, South Naknek and Ekwok.
And in the Bethel area, connections also will be available for those in Atmautluak, Nunapitchuk, Kasigluk, Kwethluk and Quinhagak.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.