‘Like day and night’: fiber-optic cables aim to make YK Delta internet faster and cheaper

Cash sign only in store
An internet outage on October 8, 2022 disrupted the Bethel Alaska Commercial Store’s ability to accept credit or debit cards for several hours. (Nina Kravinsky/KYUK)

Balasa Larson had just walked out the door of an Alaska department store in Bethel on October 8. She was one of many shoppers that day who arrived only to discover that the store was only accepting cash.

“It’s a nuisance to me because I don’t carry cash,” Larson said.

AC employees said the payment systems issue on October 8 is related to an internet outage that comes on the heels of the announcement of two new projects focused on providing better internet in Bethel and some other communities in the region.

Bethel Native Corporation President Anna Hoffman is excited about one of these two projects, both of which will provide fiber-optic cables to the Yukon-Coscoquim Delta.

“So, we’re going to have very competitive pricing and great service,” Hoffman said.

One of the projects is a partnership between Bethel Native Corporation and GCI. The cable for this project will run from Dillingham to Bethel. The subsea cable will come above ground at the mouth of the Coscoquim River. On its way, it will serve GCI clients in Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak and Oscarville. The second phase of the project will serve Atmautluak, Nunapitchuk, Kasigluk, Quinhagak and Tuntutuliak.

Hoffman said the first phase of the $42 million project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.

Calista Corporation will undertake a second similar effort along with Alaska Communications. Their project will serve Kalaskag Lower, Kalaskag Upper, Tolosak, Akyak, Akyak, Kwithlok and Nabakiak.

Thom Leonard is the Vice President at Calista. He said students and patients who rely on telehealth would benefit from the fiber-optic cable.

“This will definitely be day and night. We are seeing this first step, and we hope to connect more communities on both rivers when funding becomes available,” said Leonard.

Funding for both projects comes from the $1 billion the federal government has allocated to tribal broadband programs across the country. Ten percent of this amount will fund both projects in West Alaska.

GCI currently serves the YK Delta communities through a microwave network. The Internet signal in a microwave network is based on radio waves. This is a slower fiber optic system, said GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside.

“The microwave grid is solid,” Handyside said. “Microwaves are a great technology for delivering conductivity. It is fast, but there is a maximum capacity that you will reach. There is a limit to the amount of data it can carry.”

Handyside said that currently download speeds in Bethel are around 10Mbps. Once the city is on fiber cable, she said users will see speeds of around 2,000 megabits per second.

In addition to higher speeds, Handyside said prices will drop significantly. GCI’s Bethel customers currently pay about $300 per month for the company’s faster plan. Once the communities are connected to the fibre, she said they will have access to urban blueprints. Anchorage’s unlimited data plan currently costs $180 per month.

“200 times faster, and more than $100 cheaper,” said Handyside. “The cost of the plans may change a bit over the years, but it will be exactly what we have in Anchorage.”

GCI’s fiber-optic cable network is already available to 80% of Alaskans, according to Handyside.

For Hoffman, at Bethel, starting to connect the last 20% means more than just faster social media and cheaper streaming.

“We have such a rich life, we have so much knowledge and cultural expression, we will have the ability to share the beauty of our culture with the rest of the world,” Hoffman said.

Besides sharing, Hoffman said improving the internet will make it easier to preserve and practice Alaska Native culture and traditions.

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