A long-planned cable connecting Metlakatla and Ketchikan took a big step towards becoming a reality on Thursday. The Biden administration announced a $10.4 million grant to fund a two-mile undersea cable carrying power and broadband internet service to Alaska’s only Native reservation. Local leaders say they hope it’ll make Metlakatla a better place to live and work.
The $10.4 million grant comes from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and is funded by last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The grant is part of a package of more than $135 million that was spread across four tribes in Alaska, through the NTIA’s “Internet for All” program. The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska received $49,899,103 for a low-orbiting satellite and broadband service, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe received $7 million for a fiber optic connection, and NANA Regional Corporation got $68,479,799 for a similar project. In all, the grant is expected to serve more than 17,000 households.
Keolani Booth is the chairman of Metlakatla Power & Light, the local utility on Annette Island. He explained that the cable will serve a dual purpose.
“It’s a cable that has both the broadband and the electricity,” Booth said. “And then that’ll bring the broadband into town and all the households and get the first parts of the infrastructure for setting it up for everyone and then getting it sorted (so the) utility can run the broadband to the homes.
The connection will benefit 586 homes and businesses in Metlakatla, according to the federal agency.
Once broadband service comes online, Booth said he expects big boosts for the local schools and the clinic, as well as students who are learning remotely. And he said it’ll also be a boon for local businesses.
“What we’re hoping for is to start creating some jobs at home,” he said.
The new broadband connection will enable speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second for both uploads and downloads, according to the grant announcement. That’s 40 times faster than the top speed currently available in Metlakatla and on par with what’s available in cities like Ketchikan, Anchorage and Seattle.
Booth said about 1,500 tribal members live in Metlakatla, and he hopes it’ll encourage others who have left the community to return.
“It’s … one of our first steps towards, you know, making lives affordable and livable for our residents here in Metlakatla,” he explained. “So they can stay here — I mean, it’s very expensive to be where we are.”
He also thinks it will strengthen ties between Metlakatla and Ketchikan, thanks to the power sales agreement recently greenlit by the Ketchikan City Council.
“That’ll give us the ability to, through our sales agreement (with Ketchikan Public Utilities) to purchase power, or you know, any hydro power or whatever they have, and then the same from our end and just start being a good partner,” he said. “That’s one thing about being Alaskan, is that you’re always there for each other.”
Metlakatla’s Mayor, Albert Smith, said that the agreement is huge.
“That just happened and got signed,” he said. “So for this news to come out shortly after that was completed is just a really big deal for Metlakatla.”
The cable is expected to be installed sometime in the next two to three years, though Booth cautioned that supply chain issues and other roadblocks could delay the project. Faster speeds would be available shortly after the cable is completed.
“I know there’s a lot of formalities that most likely need to happen,” Smith said. We’ll be working, working hard to get it all completed.”
Editor’s note: this story has been updated to reflect that Metlakatla has not yet installed a broadband cable.
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.