Millions in federal grants awarded for rural Alaska internet

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — More than $100 million in grants have been announced by the federal government as part of a major effort to close the digital divide in parts of rural Alaska.

The projects will improve upon an existing system of internet service that is a series of microwave transmitters with limited data transmission and vulnerability to bad weather, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The grants include $73 million for a partnership between the Alaska Native village corporation for Bethel, Bethel Native Corporation, and telecommunications company GCI. That partnership, announced Monday, is aimed at delivering fiber cable to 10 villages and more than 10,000 people. The project has been dubbed the Airraq Network, with Airraq translating to “string that tells the story,” according to a press release.

The project includes $42 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to build a fiber network to the regional hub community of Bethel and villages of Eek, Oscarville, Napaskiak and Platinum, according to the statement. A $31 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service program will bring fiber service to the villages of Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak and Tuntutuliak.

The statement said the project would bring “2 gigabit internet speeds and affordable plans to more than 10,000 Alaskans.”

Separately, another telecommunications company, Alaska Communications and Calista Corp., the Alaska Native regional corporation for much of southwest Alaska, will receive a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to bring high-speed fiber internet to more than 2,300 Alaskans in seven other villages in the Bethel region, the organizations announced recently. Those communities are Lower Kalskag, Upper Kalskag, Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, Kwethluk and Napakiak.

Calista Corp. and Alaska Communications applied for about $52 million but a specific funding award had not been announced by the federal government as of Monday, said Thom Leonard, a Calista spokesperson.

Funding from last year’s federal infrastructure bill and other sources has been lauded by political leaders and officials with Alaska Native organizations and telecommunications companies as providing a unique opportunity to improve telecommunications in many parts of the state.

Earlier this year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced a $50 million grant to provide fiber-optic cable to about 20 villages in Alaska’s Interior as part of a collaboration between Doyon Inc., an Alaska Native corporation, and Alaska Communications.

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