Bethel Native Corporation, GCI partner to close digital divide in Western Alaska

Region receives more than $73 million for fiber broadband service through two federal grants

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Oct. 10, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Affordable, reliable, high-speed internet is coming to Western Alaska! Bethel Native Corporation (BNC), in partnership with GCI, Alaska’s largest telecommunications company, today announced the launch of a partnership to bring fiber-optic connectivity to Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The project will bring 2 gigabit internet speeds and affordable plans to more than 10,000 Alaskans.

At an event held in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the partners announced more than $73 million in broadband grants recently awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service ReConnect program.

The partners announced the new project name, the Airraq Network (pronounced EYE-huck). Airraq, a traditional Yup’ik game similar to cat’s cradle, translates to “string that tells the story.”

The press conference, held in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, hosted partners (from left to right) Becky Windt Pearson, GCI; Jenifer Nelson, GCI; Heather Handyside, GCI; Greg Chapados, GCI; Ana Hoffman, BNC; Julia Hnilicka, USDA; Billy Wailand, GCI.

ABOUT THE GRANTS

The Bethel Native Corporation has been awarded a $42 million grant from the NTIA to build a fiber network to Bethel, Platinum, Eek, Napaskiak, and Oscarville.

  • The 405-mile network will start in Dillingham, follow a submarine route to the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, and then transition to an overland route to Bethel.
  • As BNC’s subgrantee partner, GCI will construct and operate the fiber network.
  • GCI will upgrade its existing cable plant in Bethel and deploy fiber-to-the-premises local access networks in the four other communities.
  • Consumers in these communities will have access to 2 gig consumer broadband service plans that include unlimited data and affordable prices. Customers who qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program will be eligible for free internet service.
  • The service is scheduled to launch in Bethel at the end of 2024.
  • The Bethel fiber project will connect in Dillingham to another NTIA-funded fiber project to be constructed by Nushagak Telephone, which, in turn, connects to an USDA RUS-funded fiber network that connects to Anchorage. By leveraging other federal investment, BNC and GCI are using every NTIA Bethel grant dollar in the most efficient way possible.

GCI has been awarded a $31 million USDA RUS ReConnect grant to construct long-haul fiber and local fiber in the Y-K Delta communities of Atmautluak, Kasigluk, Nunapitchuk, Quinhagak, and Tuntutuliak.

  • GCI will construct and operate the fiber and will deploy fiber-to-the-premises local access networks in the five communities.
  • Consumers in these communities will receive 2 gig consumer broadband service plans that include access to unlimited data and affordable prices. Customers who qualify for the Affordable Connectivity Program will be eligible for free internet service.
  • This project will connect to the Bethel fiber, leveraging federal dollars in an efficient way.

“The residents of the 10 grant communities are now looking forward to faster speeds, more data and having much more affordable plans in the coming years,” said BNC President & CEO Ana Hoffman. “The people of the Y-K Delta are resourceful, respectful and resilient. We have a strong sense of community, and we depend upon collaboration with our friends and neighbors to be successful. We know the value of presence, and that is why I have so much confidence in this partnership between BNC and GCI and our collective commitment to deliver this service together.”

“Ana is fond of saying ‘a first-class people deserve a first-class internet service.’ We couldn’t agree more,” said GCI President & COO Greg Chapados. “GCI pledges to the people of the Y-K Delta, our partner BNC, and NTIA and RUS that we will build and operate a first-rate network that will not just narrow, but eliminate the rural-urban digital divide for the 10,000-plus residents of Bethel and the other served communities.”

In addition to Indigenous and community stakeholders, the push for federal support of Alaska’s broadband projects, including the Airraq Network, also received broad support from state and federal leaders.

“I was a big supporter of these projects and am thrilled about this announcement,” said Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy. “These types of infrastructure projects are some of the most important investments in Alaska today. These projects will finally bring high-speed, affordable internet to homes, businesses, schools, and health care facilities. High-speed broadband service will attract more investment in Alaska; it will grow our economy. Most importantly, it will create more job opportunities for our youth in the communities where they live.”

“Congratulations to Bethel Native Corporation and to all the villages in the area that are going to stand to benefit from this expansion of broadband,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “We’ve been working hard on the infrastructure bill, doing everything that we can to try to help facilitate, through NTIA, these grants and opportunities that will be coming to really connect all of Alaska, and most particularly rural Alaska. From Kasigluk to Eek, you’re going to see benefits. This is good reason for celebration and I’m glad to be part of it.”

“Access to high-speed, reliable internet can be life-changing for a community, enhancing the delivery of health care and education, and opening doors for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan. “Many of our rural, Alaska Native communities for too long have found themselves without the broadband connectivity that most Americans take for granted. I’m glad to see the significant federal infrastructure dollars we secured being deployed to break down the digital divide and improve the lives and wellbeing of thousands of Alaskans across the Lower Kuskokwim region.”

“On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I’m honored to join you in celebrating the NTIA and USDA awards to Bethel Native Corporation and GCI,” said Rep. Mary Peltola. “With this funding, fiber service will be brought to residents in 10 communities, including Bethel, my home. My kids and I can’t wait to enjoy the service we will have there once it’s constructed. And the name for the network is just perfect.”

“It was a real pleasure to be able to visit with so many of you in August,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson, recalling his trip to Western Alaska over the summer. “I was honored on that trip to meet with so many community members in places like Napaskiak and Napakiak and Bethel to hear firsthand from leading educators and health professionals. It was honestly humbling for me and for our team that was there to hear firsthand, to see the real connectivity challenges that people are facing on the ground and the real impacts that these grants could make. We know that delivering connectivity to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is critical, as we were hearing; access to jobs, healthcare, education, all the things that your community needs, but as you so clearly showed us on this visit, this is not just about bringing the internet to the Y-K Delta, this is also about bringing you all, your communities, your local knowledge, your beautiful culture to the broader internet community. And for that I think we are all going to be very grateful.”

“It’s incredible, this big lift, and USDA Rural Development is so thrilled to just be a piece of that federal funding and we’re so excited to be working alongside tribes, municipalities, and telecommunications companies like GCI to connect really remote and rural communities,” said USDA Rural Development State Director for Alaska Julia Hnilicka. “I’ve had the honor to go out to the Y-K Delta a few times this summer and I have just been, as a lifelong Alaskan, so blown away by the beauty and the complexity of culture and I’m beyond-words-thrilled to be a part of even a small part of sharing that culture with the world. Internet connectivity is not just about what it brings in, but what we are able to share out from Alaska as well.”

“It has truly been my honor to work with the Bethel Native Corporation as well as GCI as we’ve worked through the process of bringing this application forward to fruition,” said NTIA Division Chief, Tribal Connectivity and Nation to Nation Coordination Adam Geisler. “We’re entering an age now where access to affordable, reliable broadband service is going to be at your fingertips here in the very near future and, again, I want to emphasize affordability.”

About BNC

Bethel Native Corporation is respected as a business leader with offices in Bethel, Anchorage and the Lower 48. Bethel’s companies engage in many diverse lines of business including government contracting, construction, logistical support, environmental remediation and commercial real estate. Learn more about BNC at https://bethelnativecorp.org.

About GCI

Headquartered in Alaska, GCI provides data, mobile, video, voice and managed services to consumer, business, government, and carrier customers throughout Alaska, serving more than 200 communities. The company has invested more than $4 billion in its Alaska network and facilities and has been serving Alaska for more than 40 years. GCI launched Alaska’s first 1 gig and 2 gig internet service and Alaska’s first standards-based 5G NR service. Learn more about GCI at www.gci.com. GCI is a wholly owned subsidiary of Liberty Broadband Corporation (Nasdaq: LBRDA, LBRDK, LBRDP). Learn more about Liberty Broadband at http://www.libertybroadband.com.

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SOURCE Bethel Native Corporation; GCI

Bethel Native Corporation, GCI partner to close digital divide in Western Alaska WeeklyReviewer

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