Broadband Task Force plans grants, research as final acts

At what was supposed to be its final meeting, the Alaska Broadband Task Force decided to offer grants for rural community economic development projects.

The task force met Jan. 6 for what was intended to be its final meeting, and although the body ultimately decided it would need to meet again to finish up work on its report, it did determine how it would use its remaining $150,000.

The task force ultimately decided to use $90,000 to provide grants for economic development related to broadband technology, $10,000 to finish up its work and $50,000 for further research on broadband in Alaska.

The grants are intended for economic development, and to “vicariously enhance digital literacy” in the communities where they are awarded.

The commission discussed requiring 1-to-1 matching funds, but ultimately did not include that in its motion.

In addition to community groups, Alaska Regional Development Organizations, also known as ARDORs, will also be eligible to apply, if the program is reinstated. The program sunsetted after the 2013 legislative session when its renewal was attached to controversial legislation regarding the state waters scallop fishery.

If the program is not reauthorized, the organizations formerly known as ARDORs could apply instead, according to how the task force intends for the program to be implemented.

The Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage is expected to provide the task force with the scope of the research it will do with the $50,000 by July 1; the task force also believed that telecommunications organization GCI will contribute a $25,000 grant to that effort.

If for some reason the research project doesn’t happen, the task force discussed rolling that funding into the grant program.

The remaining $10,000 will be used to update network design and cost elements in the task force report. That is needed because there have been some changes in the broadband landscape since the task force began its work.

The commission will meet again to discuss the updated report and research plans.

Education, transportation staff talk broadband

Susan McCauley from the Department of Education and Early Development’s Division of Teaching and Learning Support talked about current and future initiatives using technology.

McCauley said broadband connections enable delivery of high quality, interactive courses to middle and high school students. Currently, the state is working on a project to fund school districts to scale-up the work they are already doing. The state, and other districts, can learn from what is already being doing, and see what sort of structures work in the state, McCauley said.

While some areas need additional connectivity before enhancing their use of technology, there’s also an effort to figure out how the current technology can be used more effectively, she said.

The state is also looking at how online assessments will be used in the future.

“There’s no question that that’s where things are going,” McCauley said.

Currently, there is a request for proposals out to see what the new state assessment will look like. There’s a need for a paper and pencil option, but also a desire to explore an online assessment where possible, McCauley said. That could be used in spring 2015, she said.

On the transportation infrastructure side, the task force also heard about what future broadband expansions could mean for other aspects of the state works, including transportation and education.

Department of Transportation staff also talked about how Alaska’s roads factor into telecommunications expansions throughout the state.

Currently, there is already an allowance for utilities in Department of Transportation right-of-ways, and when roads are broadened, if a utility has been in place for five years, the state pays for relocating the route, although telecoms can share the cost of upgrading the new connection.

That’s fairly generous compared to other states, according to the DOT. However, the department would have other concerns about additional requirements for broadband expansions as a result of the task force’s work in terms of resources and staff time.

Molly Dischner can be reached at [email protected].

01/16/2014 - 11:53am