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Alaska Broadband Basics

The Need for Broadband in Alaska

The majority of small communities in Alaska have no access to broadband (unserved population estimated at 60,000 people) or low-end broadband that fails to exceed 10/1 Mbps (underserved population is approximately 200,000).

Living without broadband during a pandemic is especially challenging in rural Alaska. Unlike areas with affordable broadband where people can comfortably work from home or attend classes online, this is not the case in many rural communities.

Alaska’s internet infrastructure is inadequate to deliver reliable, fast, and affordable service to underserved homes. Broadband is generally only available to anchor institutions that receive highly subsidized service. When students cannot physically attend school, and they can’t afford high priced service at home, they cannot receive an education. Physical isolation translates to total social isolation. Telemedicine is also a tremendous challenge and generally not available. Many rural communities do not have local doctors or specialists, so no internet means households also lack critical healthcare access. Working from home is almost impossible.

Making statewide broadband available everywhere in rural Alaska NOW so unserved populations can be educated, healthy, employed, and connected to friends and family is critical. COVID has made it crystal clear that broadband is as essential as water, heat, and electricity.

The ATN – A Tribally governed solution for solving the middle and last mile challenges to provide “Broadband For All” in Alaska NOW.

Step 1—Acquire 2.5 GHz Last Mile Radio Frequencies from FCC

Can be used to enable a wireless last mile on the ATN to rural communities throughout Alaska.

Step 2—Build the Last Mile ATN

Apply grant funding to implement last mile 2.5GHz ATN design in ATN-equipped villages across Alaska.

Step 3—Provide an Affordable Middle Mile

Combine infrastructure grant funding with subsidies to provide new near-term satellite middle mile to every village on the ATN across Alaska.

Broadband  – The Basic Network Concepts

When describing broadband access, the terms “last mile” and “middle mile” are often misunderstood. The following is a summary on the basic concepts.  

The internet is basically a collection of networks that transport information to and from other networks. Internet access is bought from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that can transport your data at a wide range of rates over the network. You pay an ISP to get data from your computer or phone and deliver it to another destination on the internet and then back to you. There are 3 main parts in the transport from your device to the destination and back. The Internet backbone (interstate), Middle Mile (highways) and Last Mile (neighborhood streets). The availability and quality of the connection from the Internet backbone via the middle and last mile is key to getting broadband level service. Broadband denotes fast internet so you can do things in a matter of seconds and stream data, like can be done in major cities in Alaska and the lower 48.

Current Middle Mile in Alaska

In rural Alaska there is poor middle mile quality that results in poor broadband connections. There are generally no wired connections like fiber. In most situations, old-style satellite connections are the only option which are slow and low capacity. In most cases the school and the clinics have decent internet because their access is highly subsidized, but consumers must pay hundreds of dollars per month for slow unreliable connections.

In large Alaskan cities there are good connections because fiber available there with a direct wired connection to the internet. There are roads, and fiber can be laid along those roads to extend to other nearby areas for high- speed connections. The map below is from the 2019 State of Alaska “Blueprint for Alaska’s Broadband Future“. As you can see, there are huge areas that have no connection to fiber (green) or the TerraNet microwave (blue) which understandably struggles with capacity issues because there is not enough fiber connections to keep it full for those who are down the line. As more fiber becomes available this will improve. Even so, this leaves wide gaps in middle mile connectivity.

In between the large cities and rural areas there is a mixed bag depending on how close you are to a fiber connection. The fiber middle mile can also be extended by using microwave to other communities.

Middle mile transport (the highways that connect you to and from the internet backbone) capability drops off the further away you are from the fiber (which means the further from large population centers).  Ideally, the gold standard is to run a direct fiber line to every community in Alaska, but in communities with no significant road system it is very expensive. this means remote rural areas will have to wait a very long time. If your community has a chance to get funding for a fiber middle mile connection that is a worthy goal, but if not, which is the case for most of rural Alaska, what can you do in the interim to get middle mile for your village now?

Benefits of being part of the ATN

Benefits include Tribal revenue, better equipment pricing, and more for your community.

Benefits of being a member of ATS

Benefits include Tribal revenue, being a part of the ATN, chances for additional revenue, and more.

Satellites can deliver affordable middle mile to rural Alaska NOW.

Solving rural Alaska’s middle-mile (highway) broadband challenge with terrestrial legacy options (fiber) is a multi-billion dollar problem, more than is available to the entire country now. However, satellite technology is advancing with cost-effective and prompt solutions available now.

Satellites, like cars, have come a long way over the years. Today’s satellite choices are like comparing an Edsel to a Tesla. Both are cars but one is much more modern in capability. Rural Alaska is currently using old satellite technology that is very limiting and expensive. New satellites can do so much more. There are two types. Geostationary High Throughput satellites (GEO – HTS) and Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEO) from OneWeb and Starlink. This satellite middle mile is very satisfying using any of these for consumer applications. Combining HTS GEO with new LEO technology could provide affordable broadband to every underserved (Tribal) community last mile wireless network in Alaska in the very near future. This satellite capability can enable current generations to have broadband while they await the time and expense of getting fiber somewhere down the road.

Alaskan Last Mile

Last Mile is movement of data from a middle mile connection hub in your community (where the middle mile wire i.e fiber usually or the satellite downlink) to and from its final destination – i.e your computer or phone. There are two main choices for last mile – wired or wireless. A wired last mile can be fiber to the home or over existing copper/phone lines. A wireless signal is transmitted from radios on a tower and uses a radio frequency like 2.5 GHz, to connect to the router in your home or your phone. For a data intensive business fiber is the best choice. For a consumer or small business fiber also works, but you can’t take it with you as you move about your community. Using a wireless network for transmitted signal all over the community is a much more economical and practical choice. Consumers typically can have very good broadband over wireless delivery. In rural Alaska wired last mile connections are not the norm. Where there is existing copper phone lines last mile delivery at broadband speeds may be possible. There is no wireless last mile of any significance currently in rural Alaska, hence there are about 60,000 unserved citizens with no broadband.

ATS has recently applied for significant NTIA grant funding to create the Alaska Tribal Network (ATN). This network will provide wireless last mile equipment for every member community in rural Alaska. The grant application also applied for a significant subsidy to supply LEO and GEO satellite connections to these last mile installations.

 

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