FCC chair discusses unique Alaska needs at roundtable

Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler discussed telecommunications issues with Alaskans during a recent visit.

Wheeler participated in a roundtable with Sen. Mark Begich and the Alaska Broadband Task Force at its Aug. 27 meeting in Anchorage, where the conversation touched on federal funding for Alaska projects, Arctic expansion and other issues.

Wheeler said that the FCC was considering a change to the Connect America fund that would require funded projects to result in faster internet speeds to better reflect the speeds needed for the most commonly used aspects of the internet, including video streaming.

“We’re debating whether to increase the minimum speed for Connect America Funding from 4 (megabits per second) to 10 meg,” Wheeler said.

The task force issued a report in 2013 calling for 100 megabits per second, or mbps, service statewide by 2020, a goal Wheeler said was an “excellent idea.” Begich also weighed in on that goal, and said the undertaking would be a major challenge, but a valuable one.

“But it will dramatically change Alaska’s ability to connect with the rest of the world from a social perspective, an economic perspective, a healthcare perspective and open up the doors of education to our young people across the state,” Begich said.

Wheeler said it would be good for the state to figure out how it could work with the federal government to work together, and find a way to fund the whole project.  Currently, the FCC sends about $250 million per year to Alaska; the task force plan will cost about $1.2 billion.

Mike Todd, from Alaska Communications, said during the discussion that the $1.2 billion cost is essentially $200 million for the urban parts of Alaska, and about $1 billion to connect the rest of the non-road system communities.

Wheeler said realizing that Alaska’s buildout would require connecting about 255 communities off the road system as “kind of an ‘oh wow’ moment.”

AT&T’s Chris Brown also asked about how the commission will find the balance between providing public money for building out telecommunications infrastructure, and where it will work to get private industry to take on the task on its own.

Wheeler said the current processes are underway to figure out what areas of the country are underserved according to various carriers, and also what future needs look like — including wireless service.

“We should not be running a program that uses public money to compete with private entities,” Wheeler said.

In response to a question from Alaska Dispatch News’ Roberta Graham, Wheeler said he was aware of the role Alaska plays in Arctic development, including telecommunications.

“You guys have been key to everything, always,” Wheeler said.

Ever since a telegraph system from London to Washington, D.C., was discussed during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the state has had a strategic location for those sorts of international developments, he said. Now, he said Alaska had a similar role in the Arctic Fibre project, which would connect London to Tokyo via a submarine cable that runs through Alaskan waters.

Wheeler said he hoped that line gets built. He also discussed changes to the e-rate program that are in the works. The e-rate program is part of the Universal Service Fund, and provides discounted access to telecommunications and internet services for schools and libraries throughout the country, including Alaska.

Currently, it’s largely paper-based and the paperwork can be complex, according to some participants including Mike Robinson from the Alaska Library Association, a task force member who participated in the roundtable.

Wheeler said it’s crazy that a program all about getting people access to the internet doesn’t use the internet itself.

“We’re fixing that,” he said “It’s not going to be a slambang, happens two weeks from Thursday, but we’ve got to harness our own technology, that should make things easier.”

Wheeler also said that he expected the new program would have increased funding for libraries, something else Robinson emphasized the need for.

09/08/2014 - 7:35am