Discounts, upgrades for Alaska's broadband service

The COVID-19 pandemic solidified our dependence on the internet. Throughout the Lower 48, high speed internet access is a given. In Alaska’s rural – and at times, urban – communities, high speed internet access can be hard to come by. According to the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Broadband Deployment Report, 85% of Alaskans have internet access at 25 megabits per second (mbs) or higher, the minimum speed standard outlined by the FCC. This breaks down further when considering rural communities, where 63.7% have access to internet with speeds of 25mbs or higher.

To level internet access inequities across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC introduced the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) in May. EBB will provide a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands. Because the state of Alaska is considered tribal lands in its entirety, all eligible households in Alaska will receive up to $75 per month toward their internet bill.

Since EBB was announced on May 12, over 2.5 million Americans have applied, according to numbers recently released by the Universal Service Administration Cooperative.

To qualify for EBB, households must be eligible for at least one of the following criteria:

Has an income that is at 135% or below the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid or Lifeline

Approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year

Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year

Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020, and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joining filers

Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program

Most of Alaska’s broadband service providers are participating in the EBB program, including GCI, the North Slope’s Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative (ASTAC) and Alaska Communications, which serves businesses and residential communities from Deadhorse to Whitter, the Aleutian Islands to the southeast.

“We are very excited to be providing this program to our eligible customers,” said Heather Marron, Corporate Communications Manager at Alaska Communications.

Another aspect of the EBB program offers a connected device credit where eligible customers can also use a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase an internet device, such as a laptop or tablet.

Adding the device credit aspect of the EBB program is one of the many ways ASTAC, GCI and other providers have looked after customers during the pandemic.

“We wanted to make sure we weren’t adding additional stress to families,” said Stacy Marshall, Chief Services Officer at ASTAC. “We provided a $50 credit to all households with broadband at the start of the pandemic, suspended all late fees and did not shut off anyone’s internet if they couldn’t pay. I’ve learned that we should treat the customer the way we want to be treated.”

Customers eligible for EBB must simply visit their broadband service provider’s website and follow instructions for applying, outlined by the FCC. After approval, the eligible customer’s service provider adds the $75 monthly credit to their account (as Alaska is considered tribal land).

Considering EBB is a federal program, its $3.2 billion allocation will be used to help eligible households across the country, and funding could be exhausted sooner rather than later. If funding doesn’t run out first, the program will continue until six months after the federal Dept. of Health and Social Services declares the pandemic over.

Funding to extend the program past the current offering has not been promised yet, although Congress has their eye on providing additional broadband assistance to American households in the future, says Christine O’Connor, Executive Director of Alaska Telecom Association (ATA).

The cost of providing Alaska’s broadband

At an Alaska House Finance Committee meeting on May 6, O’Connor gave a “State of Broadband in Alaska” presentation on behalf of ATA to discuss ways to close access gaps to broadband across the state, both in rural and urban communities.

“Access to broadband is a big topic of concern and conversation,” O’Connor said. “We use a variety of technologies to provide broadband across the state, but once you’re off the road system, the cost of providing high speed broadband becomes expensive.”

O’Connor’s presentation outlined the means for providing broadband across the largest, and one of the most remote, states in the country.

As a rule, broadband is provided by two large systems: the Middle Mile and the Last Mile. The Middle Mile connects broadband from the core network to the local network, i.e. schools, businesses and health care providers in the community, whereas the Last Mile connects the local network to residential communities.

In Alaska, Last Mile and Middle Mile infrastructure is currently being updated or added, with millions of dollars supporting efforts across the state for providers like Alaska Communications, Matanuska Telephone Association and ASTAC, according to O’Connor.

Aside from the structures themselves, Alaska uses three types of connections to get internet to communities: fiber optic cable, microwave and satellite. Satellites and microwaves run as waves above the ground, allowing less than optimal connections. Microwave still requires towers that can be dangerous to operate on in arctic Alaska’s below freezing weather, according to ASTAC’s Marshall, and satellite connection causes latency, both O’Connor and Marshall agreed, respectively.

The best type of connection for high speed internet is hands-down fiber optic cable.

Marshall mentioned the North Slope community of Atqasuk as an example, where work is underway to connect all residents to fiber optic cables. “Rather than simply have what’s called a node, or fiber optic cable hub nearby connected to each house via copper cables, we are running fiber optic cables straight to each residence. I don’t even have internet like that in Anchorage.”

While providers like ASTAC strive to create and maintain strong, ideally fiber-based, Middle and Last Mile connections to their customers, the services they provide in rural communities are still expensive.

“What people don’t understand is that the companies that provide our backhaul (for the core, Middle Mile connection) are not a nonprofit based in Alaska like ASTAC is,” stated Marshall. “They’re a private company based in Tokyo – because yes, our fiber optic we use, Quintillion, runs all the way to Tokyo. This is why we can’t offer unlimited internet for a flat rate. It’s too expensive for us to provide.”

To combat this, O’Connor and Marshall believe action from state and federal governments is crucial to take the pressure off consumers paying for broadband.

“We need advocacy,” said O’Connor when interviewed by phone in June. “Making sure there is enough infrastructure to support high speed broadband in the state is crucial. The Dunleavy administration has done a great job by forming a broadband task force to make policy recommendations.”

On the federal side, Marshall notes that there are important discrepancies between what backhaul providers can charge broadband providers depending on location – almost as if federal regulation for providing internet is needed to keep costs down for consumers.

“What we pay as a company versus what a company in the Lower 48 pays for their backhaul is astronomically different,” said Marshall. “Internet is a requirement now like gas and electricity. A lot of these communities in the villages don’t have the same technologies as the rest of the country, so children aren’t staying and the way of life is leaving. We want to provide fast, reliable broadband so people have a reason to stay.”

Other cost saving options

Aside from EBB, low income households can apply for Lifeline, another FCC program that provides unlimited local calling or internet service to eligible customers.

Anchorage residents are also eligible for assistance through the Municipality in the form of a past-due bill forgiveness for those that experienced a financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Editor's note: The print edition version of this story contains an error, stating Alaska Communications is providing the EBB discount for purchase of tablet devices. The company clarified that they are not offering this.