New initiative aims to connect more Alaskans with the internet

By: - April 28, 2023 5:59 pm
Afternoon traffic is seen in downtown Fairbanks on March 1. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Afternoon traffic is seen in downtown Fairbanks on March 1. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

A new initiative by the Rasmuson Foundation and Alaska’s state government is working to expand broadband internet access across the state over the next decade to the people who need it most. 

The initiative, also known as the digital equity plan, began two years ago with Congress passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The IIJA provided over $2 billion in federal funding for the improvement of communities — an improvement which included expanding broadband access on the local level. Through the reimbursable grant provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Alaska has received upwards of $500,000. Once it develops an action plan for expanding broadband access, the state could receive millions more in funding for digital equity, according to Kristina Woolston, who is the broadband senior fellow with the Rasmuson Foundation. She said that greater access will come in two parts: through a digital equity plan and an infrastructure plan, which is intended to create better access to broadband internet over the next five years and beyond. 

Advocates define digital equity as a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity to fully participate in society, democracy and the economy. “This is an opportunity for Alaskan partners to come together to build this plan that will have transformational changes for Alaskans for years to come,” Woolston said.

Together the state of Alaska Broadband Office and the Rasmuson Foundation are working with nonprofits to create the action plan to achieve this goal, with special attention paid to those that need access most. Alaskans who are disabled, elderly and living in rural areas are just some of the people who are less likely to have digital equity.

“We want to hear from these different groups and we want to hear their struggles and we want to solve their problems,” said Jessy Lakin, who is the program lead for the Alaska Warrior Project. The AWP is part of over a dozen organizations that are working with the Rasmuson Foundation and the state.

Lakin works with veterans to help understand their needs when it comes to internet access. And he and many other nonprofit organizations are doing that by speaking with underserved communities to find out what they need to thrive in a digital world. 

Through the summer, nonprofits who are partners in the digital equity plan will be hosting listening sessions to gather information about what’s needed to establish better digital equity. These nonprofit partners, like the Alaska Warrior Project, are connecting with underserved populations in the state and listening to their needs. 

Lakin said that what people are asking for in their listening sessions isn’t free internet or devices. It’s help navigating a changing digital world. 

“The ability to use the internet is the biggest thing that we’ve heard,” he said

Alaska currently ranks 42nd in the nation for broadband internet access on account of some people’s lack of access to internet coverage, speed and availability, according to BroadbandNow, which researches the industry. 

Alaska’s lagging broadband infrastructure becomes a problem in areas like education, where the internet is a heavily used tool that can help cross language barriers.

Lori Pickett, executive director of the Alaska Literacy Program, said that the internet is critical to helping the immigrant communities that her organization serves learn English. Pickett’s organization is one of the nonprofits partnering with the Rasmuson Foundation and state. And she said that internet access needs went beyond just those served by the Alaska Literacy Program. 

“There isn’t anybody who doesn’t need it,” she said.

However, despite the high need for good internet access, there are many barriers that stand in the way of creating digital equity. 

“Our state is kind of a case study, I like to say, for so many issues,” said Brittany Woods-Orrison, the broadband specialist for the nonprofits Alaska Public Interest Research Group and Native Movement. She said that there are many unique issues that Alaska faces when implementing better infrastructure, like the state’s extreme terrain and short construction season. 

But even with the challenges, she said Alaskans were working together to address the issues of expanding internet access. 

“We have really complicated challenges, but we’re coming together creatively and people are really energized for this work,” she said. “So despite that, the solutions and the team effort is coming through,” said Woods-Orrison. \

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the timing of the original grant and the amount the project could receive in future funding.


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