Broadband is the new electricity. Rural areas in the United States were helped to receive electricity starting in the 1930’s with the establishment of the Rural Electrification Act, now administered by the Rural Utilities Service under the federal Dept. of Agriculture. Perhaps the same effort is now needed for broadband.
One cannot participate in today’s modern society without functional high-speed internet connectivity.
Connectivity is a crap shoot in many areas around the country, depending on where investor owned, for-profit companies decide it is worth their while to invest.
A number of electric cooperatives and municipalities have taken on their own efforts to deliver broadband internet in their areas.
First a short description of acronyms:
o Mbps = megabits per second, a measurement of speed. 1,000 Kbps = 1 Mbps
o mb = megabytes, a measurement of storage (8 bits = 1 byte)
25 Mbps is the current federal definition of high speed broadband internet. A couple years ago, it was 10 Mbps.
Fairbanks has a hodgepodge of internet providers.
ACS (Alaska Communications) had deployed DSL many years ago with a base speed of 384 Kbps upload and 128 Kbps. This methodology is limited to approximately 15,000 feet from wherever their equipment is located to the home or business. A couple years ago, ACS decided that nobody was happy with less than 10 Mbps, so they would no longer offer anything less. With that came a limitation of needing to be within 5,000 feet. Existing customers were grandfathered at the slower speeds, but if they disconnected, NO service would be offered. Also, no transfers of accounts are allowed.
GCI (General Communications, Inc.) initially came into Fairbanks to provide competitive phone service. They have a network operations center in the 5th Ave. building that also houses the FNSB School District and a satellite station at the end of Esro Road, off Chena Hot Springs Road. The latter location was previously developed and occupied by the European Space Research Organization for collecting data from polar satellites. Now known as ESA, European Space Agency, they left the site in 1978. In the meantime, GCI bought up a number of small cable providers in the Fairbanks-North Pole area and began offering internet and other media services.
AlasConnect was initially an effort by GVEA in 2005 to diversify from solely providing electricity as a hedge against the deregulation of electrical service. Of course, we saw what happened with Enron. AlasConnect provided an inexpensively deployed wireless internet service that covered perhaps up to 1,000 locations in Fairbanks. In the meantime, they also utilized GVEA to build fiber to large organizations and businesses and established a data center to provide services to those customers. The wireless internet has become a distraction and I’m told they are letting the system age out. If you have a connectivity problem, they are as likely to say, so sorry, we are terminating service to you. In 2016, AlasConnect and all the fiber of GVEA was sold to Matanuska Telephone Association. I have observed of no change in a desire to provide functional broadband to the overall Fairbanks area, other than business and government from which they can derive a good income.
AceTekk is another small wireless company, faced with the same challenging connectivity issues with wireless internet.
Hughes.net is a satellite based provider, also re-sold by MicroComm who are expanding their presence in Fairbanks with a new building next to Fred Meyer East. the challenges with satellite communication is the distance to relaying a signal and a very low amount of data you are allowed to use, no help from those whose computers get frequent updates.
There are cellular options for where cellular service is reliable, but they also have data caps and are rather expensive. AT&T, GCI, and Verizon all serve some areas of Fairbanks.
Substantive expansion of high speed broadband hasn’t been happening unless government funding is provided. GCI and now ACS have been taking advantage of this. ACS has a current $19 mm grant to expand service in some unserved areas of Fairbanks and Kenai using a fixed wireless technology where they run fiber to small towers and go wireless to the customer. They are given 9 years to develop this and required to guarantee a 10 Mbps speed. Of course, that is already an outdated standard.
Cable service from GCI can achieve higher speeds, but they show no willingness to expand, perhaps limited by more lucrative opportunities than residential service.
The most future-proof distribution method for broadband is with fiber. Higher speeds are able to be provided by just changing the electronics on either end.
A number of electrical cooperatives and municipalities in the Lower 48 are setting up side business to do just that – fiber. Some also provide media and telephone service as well. One of the first to do this was Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in central Missouri. They provide it all successfully through Co-Mo Connect because their members demanded it. Their General Manager has been nominated to head the federal Rural Utilities Services (a major borrowing funding source for electric and other cooperatives) partly because of their success in deploying broadband.
Because of a 5 year non-compete clause with the sale of AlasConnect to MTA, GVEA can’t do anything for several years (unless the clause is waived). Initially, MTA hasn’t been interested as they have plenty on their hands including deploying fiber in MatSu.
Could an independent cooperative be created to provide this service? Perhaps, but a feasibility study would be a good first step to warrant the effort. A good business plan would then need to be developed. Maybe GVEA and MTA, if they aren’t interested in pursuing this, would be willing to help fund a first step in the spirit of the cooperative principle of coops helping other coops. The FNSB is an unlikely implementer with their hands already full and the Interior Energy Project struggling forward. But maybe the FNSB and other large stakeholders such as Doyon, FMH, Alyeska, UAF and other large employers would also see it in their members/residents/employees’ best interests also to help make that first step. Such an effort could lay the groundwork for the development of a broadband cooperative that would serve all.
Just an idea, but we really need functional high-speed broadband internet widely deployed throughout the Fairbanks area. Other areas in our state are also needy, but I’m just focusing on Fairbanks.