viye tr’ixidinli’an | focus
Mammoth line graphic
Bridging Alaska’s Digital Divide
Slow and expensive internet is a barrier to education, commerce and culture in rural Alaska.
By Leona Long

HIRLEY ESMAILKA-SAM remembers sitting outside the Koyukuk Tribal office building to access the internet for her distance education classes.

“Sometimes it would be raining, sometimes it would be cold, sometimes it would be hot,” said Shirley (Koyukon Athabascan), who is now completing her master’s degree in rural development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “I would have to sit outside the Tribal office building or in the washeteria so I could log into my online classes.”

Shirley’s story isn’t unique. Sluggish bandwidth speeds in rural Alaska make it necessary for some students to sit outside the entryway of their schools and Tribal offices at night to get Wi-Fi reception on their laptops to complete their homework and access their courses. Many of them work until their hands become numb from the cold making it almost impossible to type or log into online classes.

When it comes to high-speed internet access, also known as broadband, rural Alaska communities are lagging behind. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) less than 60% of people living on Tribal Lands have access to broadband compared to 97% of Americans living in urban areas.

“In today’s world, the internet is synonymous with opportunity,” said Ben Fate Velaise (Koyukon Athabascan), People Operations Associate at Google and leadership council member for the Google American Indian Network. “Jobs are posted online, and the many skills that jobs require can be learned online too — especially in science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s true that access to a reliable and fast internet connection has a direct impact on community growth and the future success of our youth.”


There is now an effort to close Indian Country’s digital divide. In February, the FCC opened a priority window for Federally Recognized Native American Tribes and Alaska Native Villages on rural Tribal lands to claim the unlicensed Educational Broadband Service spectrum on their traditional lands. Licenses for the 2.5 GHz spectrum help Tribes establish and expand high-speed internet access. Because all of Alaska’s Tribal entities applied for the licenses for these airwaves, none of Alaska’s spectrum will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Already 18 (and counting!) Alaska Native Tribal entities have been granted licenses.

“By claiming the broadband spectrum on their traditional land, Tribes can connect their communities…”

“The internet is a necessity of life and a large percentage of people living on Tribal land, don’t have that,” said Suzanne DePoe (Tututni, Southern Cheyenne and Ojibwe), test engineer at Google and a Google American Indian Network leadership council and volunteer. “Tribal sovereignty gives Tribes the right to own and operate their own communications network. By claiming the broadband spectrum on their traditional land, Tribes can connect their communities with emergency services, health services, and government services.”

A partnership between MuralNet and the Google American Indian Network is helping ensure that Tribes are on an even playing field with the rest of the world. These organizations provided assistance at no cost to Tribes and guided them through the process of submitting their applications to the FCC to claim the 2.5 GHz broadband spectrum. This license gives Tribes the right to operate their own communication system and the freedom to operate their network.

“The rural digital divide is surmountable,” said Mariel Triggs, CEO of MuralNet. “Almost all of Alaska has unlicensed 2.5 GHz airwaves so Tribes can claim that spectrum over their own lands for free. They can use this spectrum to distribute wireless high-speed internet throughout their village. MuralNet and our partners assisted Tribes with applications, waivers, shapefiles, and the submission of the application so they can claim this valuable natural resource.”

Alaska’s rugged terrain and scattered population makes it difficult and often expensive to provide reliable internet to every rural community. Broadband can be delivered to villages through fiber cable, satellite, wireless and microwave. Then broadband can be distributed throughout the village using the 2.5 GHz spectrum.

“So the one solution is not always the best solution for everybody,” said Jennifer Nelson (Aleut), GCI’s rural communications manager. “When delivering telecommunications, it’s definitely not a one size fits all toolbox. GCI uses a lot of different technologies to reach people and increase capacity, because demand is going up and more people are reliant on broadband technology for daily life. GCI is doing our best to serve rural communities and continuing to invest.”

$200 per month

Broadband speed and cost vary from community to community. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified rural Alaska’s already limited broadband capacity as more people have been forced to work from home and rely on telemedicine.

“We don’t all get the same service,” said Darrell Vent Sr. (Koyukon Athabascan) who installs internet service in Interior Alaska villages. “There is no standard speed. Some communities get one megabyte per second and others get 44 megabytes per second. It depends on which company is providing the service and what equipment is being used.”

Shirley said the first challenge with the internet for her was the internet itself. She moved to Koyukuk in March of 2018, and didn’t get the internet until November. Her first roadblock to getting internet access was setting the satellite dish herself and taking an online class to learn how to complete the installation process.

Everything was fine for about six months then she started quickly going through her data allowance. Shirley says her bill usually runs as much as $200 per month when the extra charges for additional data are factored in. Her internet access is used exclusively for schoolwork.

“I picked the 50 gigabytes a month plan,” said Shirley, who is also the author of two novels. “It usually lasts two or three days, and I’m back to slow internet again. For my online classes, that’s a challenge because I have to do an online test and I have to wait for the next page to load. Now if it’s a timed test, and sometimes there’s like 70 questions, I lose my progress due to the slow internet. It’s affected my grades and sometimes, students are not allowed to retake the test.”

Streaming videos pose a problem for many Alaska Native students taking distance education courses. Shirley said it can take her as long as three or four hours to watch one hour-long video, depending on internet speeds. Sometimes downloading the required course materials can be as frustrating and challenging as watching an online video.

“Submitting my homework is another challenge,” said Shirley. “Sometimes the internet is too slow to work. Sometimes my files are too big and so it may be awhile before my instructor actually gets the email so my homework gets marked late. I am working on my third degree, so over time; my instructors have gotten to know me and understand the challenges that I have with the internet.”

datA limits, teaching limits

Slow-moving internet speeds also affect the way that distance courses are taught. As an adjunct professor for UAF, Amy Ahnaughuq Topkok (Inupiaq) taught appreciation of Alaska Native performance as an online course to students to students in Bethel region in the fall 2018 and spring 2019.

Amy adapted the way her courses were taught to accommodate lower bandwidth speeds. The class used YouTube videos to show different examples of Alaska Native dance performances and storytelling.

“Some students were using their own cell phones to view and access the YouTube video links, because it was just better service,” said Amy. “They were using up their data by the end of the month. Because if I offered a one-hour video thinking, oh gosh, this is a really good example of this type of Alaskan Native dance or performance or storytelling, I quickly realized I couldn’t. I had to use short excerpts that I cut myself into three to five-minute segments. Because I couldn’t overburden them for going over their data limit.”

“When you teach students in rural Alaska, you have to have the internet. Lower broadband speed forces you to change the way that you teach.”

In addition to shortening dance performance videos, Amy also limited course materials to fewer than 10-page pdf files that had been compressed in size. It was easier for her students to download and print the files. For many of Amy’s students, printed chapters or articles or stories were a valuable part of class as well, because they can print out and refer to often, being able to take with them to their homes and read, not restricted to having to access their homework through a computer or their phones.

“I learned quickly that my students were using their own devices to access course materials,” said Amy. “When you teach students in rural Alaska, you have to have the internet. Lower broadband speed forces you to change the way that you teach.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has further strained broadband speeds as more Alaskans have been forced to work from home and take distance education classes online. In rural Alaska, it made an already frustrating situation worse. Many Alaska Native people consider slower internet a compromise for the opportunity to live a traditional lifestyle.

“Education looks very different today than it did 50 years ago,” said Ben. “We can no longer rely solely on pen and paper to learn. The way we learn is influenced by technology and technology is evolving at an unprecedented rate, meaning education is too.”