Program offers funding to bring Internet to rural Alaska

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
Lawmakers recently approved a federal program aimed at providing Internet access to residents in rural communities who lack dial-up connections. The move is another step in efforts to bring basic Internet services to rural Alaska.

Meanwhile Alaska Network Systems, a nonprofit organization with members from 12 Alaska local exchange carriers, continues its own push for federal funding to finance its plan to provide rural Internet services.

President Bush signed into law Nov. 28 the fiscal 2002 agriculture appropriations bill, which includes expanded language geared at rural telecommunications services, said Jen Siciliano, who works in Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens’ office. Language in the new law is part of the Rural Development Administration’s community facilities program.

"Dozens of villages in Alaska lack basic dial-up Internet services," Stevens said in a statement issued after the Senate approved the bill. "The expanded language included in the agriculture appropriations bill will provide the resources to develop state-of-the-art Internet access for rural communities."

To qualify for the program, state regulatory commissions would submit applications to the Agriculture Department, said Regulatory Commission of Alaska chairwoman and commissioner Nanette Thompson.

Communities’ eligibility will be based on high unemployment and absence of dial-up Internet access, she said.

"Many communities in our state would qualify," Thompson said. "It’s something we are actively pursuing."

However, some unemployment data based on census information is unreliable for some rural areas in Alaska, she said.

Funding will not be available until the agriculture department lists a notice of availability of funds in the Federal Register, she said.

Thompson estimated at least 50 villages in Alaska would qualify for the program.

The RCA chairwoman praised recent action by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month, which also aims to boost Internet access for Alaskans. The FCC granted a waiver Dec. 3 to the state’s part in a federal program that provides funds to eligible schools and libraries to reduce the cost of providing Internet services at those facilities. The move allows community members at home to use the Internet connection of their local schools and libraries for noneducational use during hours when those facilities are closed.

The program, administered by the state Department of Education, will probably be more active than the federal program for which state regulators must apply, Thomson said.

Last June, Alaska Network Systems submitted a grant proposal for $24 million, seeking to fund Internet service to 139 Alaska villages. ANS filed the grant request June 1 to receive funding from the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service Community Facilities grant.

However, most of the funds ANS targeted were already distributed to 50 other projects in 26 states, although not including telecommunications services, said Ed Cushing, ANS president.

The one-time grant, coupled with $8 million from ANS, would have paid for satellite circuits and other expenses associated with providing Internet access, according to the grant proposal.

"We continue to pursue other grant opportunities," Cushing said.

He hopes to secure federal funding next year and plans upcoming trips to Washington, D.C., to promote the project.

Cushing noted rural residents’ use of school and library Internet access is better than no Web connection at all but contends that his company’s plan is a better in the long term.

12/23/2001 - 8:00pm