Peninsula internet speeding up slowly
The digital gap between urban and rural areas in the U.S. is well documented and persistent. And even though those rural areas are increasingly gaining access to the internet, the gap remains in the form of slow speeds and poor markets for new investment.
If you’re a part of the roughly sixty percent of Alaskans who have access to the world wide web, you know that it’s just...not the best.
Suzie Kendrick is a Tote Roader, as she says. A little neighborhood just a couple miles outside Soldotna and in a kind of internet purgatory. At least for now. She’s close enough to get hooked up, but not to the good line that brings high speeds to a select few areas around the Peninsula.
“I’ve lived in the area 35 years and I can tell you, it’s been hampering business growth in our general area. We’re in that middle spot where we don’t have all of the other options you’d have if you lived in the city limits. And I’m telling you, in today’s economy, in the global economy, if we don’t have internet, we cannot do business effectively and we can’t grow. And I’m not talking about me personally and being able to work from home. I’m talking about businesses that need to be able to sell their fisheries products in the summertime or to be able to reach out and get customers for the their Air BnBs or whatever might be on the outskirts of the internet world that might be available to us.”
And through her work at Kenai Peninsula College, Kendrick also knows how important access to current technology is for education. And especially in rural Alaska where the internet’s promise of closing the distances between us can be all the more beneficial.
“The wheel has spun on education. It’s no longer necessary to live near an institution in order to get an education. However, an internet connection is 100 percent important. You can get an education from any number of high-ranking universities, including the University of Alaska, including Kenai Peninsula College, but it doesn’t really matter unless people can access those opportunities. That’s where the rubber hits the road...we’re getting to that critical mass time and folks, if we don’t get with the program, we’re going to get left behind.”
The ubiquity of the internet has developed right along with its capacity to be monetized. And that’s all based on the ability of the internet to connect people and services. Rideshares, the aforementioned Air BnB, not to mention all of the work done by independent contractors; web developers and graphic designers. All of those and more are becoming a bigger part of the overall job pool as the overall economy continues its adaptation to new technology, all based around the internet. The gig economy is a neat buzzword that gets thrown around a lot to describe this. And of course technology is changing pretty much every existing part of the economy, too, from health care to good old fashioned brick and mortar retail shops.
Out in Sterling is a place that kind of represents something of the old and the new. A locally-owned retail store, in an emerging industry, trading solely in cash, and totally reliant on the internet.
“Everything but the heat and the lights is taking up bandwidth in here, you know what I mean?”
Brian Keith is, among other titles, a tech guy at Permafrost Distributors, a cannabis retail store. He says it’s not just the in-house operations that demand high speed internet, it’s also the law.
“The way that the state tracks our inventory to keep things regulated is through the internet. That’s just the baseline," Keith says.
"We have to have internet access to update our inventory every day at the end of the day. So having some internet access is absolutely vital. Then, we advertise online. We have websites where we can (list) our product. The ATM uses internet. The security cameras nowadays are frequently uploading or streaming online, so that’s taking up bandwidth. My phone in my pocket, it’s hooked to the wifi. Everybody’s got one, all the customers have one, we have public wifi. So it’s real easy with the low, low amount of data that we have to get eaten up by walking around doing stuff you wouldn’t think twice about.”
The expectations we have of what we should be able to online are trending in a direction that simply demands more speed and more bandwidth. In general, those are merely adequate right now and that’s not enough, according to Dr. Don Albrecht. He’s Director of the Western Rural Development Center through Utah State University and he’s spent a lot of time researching what happens when rural areas do and don’t have access to new technology.
“You say your (internet service) is adequate. It requires better than that. We need better than that.”
But that takes major investment and right now, it’s tough to make the business case if you’re an ACS or a GCI. The payoff is likely there, but it will take awhile. Albrecht and others, including Governor Bill Walker liken the issue to rural electrification in the 1930’s. Government investment and local co-ops made that possible when there was no lucrative market for private capital.
“Internet is just not as good in rural America as it needs to be and to solve that, I think it’s going to take a public commitment, both federal and state.”
And there are programs dedicated to connecting rural America. But it’s a slow process and the public money is tough to come by. The Federal Communications Commission administers what’s called the Connect America Fund, and it does pretty much what you would think. But the FCC has faced serious budget cuts under the current administration. And the money that is there, an extra half a billion dollars was announced this year for rural programs, just isn’t enough. In Alaska alone, it would cost in excess of a billion dollars to get statewide access to high speed broadband. And even that’s an old number, estimated by a state task force whose recommendations have been gathering dust since 2014.
“What the internet and modern technology does is reduce relevant distance," Albrecht says.
As traditional industries change in rural America, the degree to which new technology can be made available is the degree to which those communities will find success in a revamped economy. Whether you’re talking logging or fishing or mining, the same story tends to play out.
Either the resource exhausted or technology comes in to make it cheaper to extract the resource. And the result is the same: fewer jobs in that area. One promise of the internet has always been the closing of distance, as Dr. Albrecht said. But simple access to high speed, and that’s the key here, high speed broadband internet, doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of investment and there are plenty of physical hurdles, too, especially the farther you are away from everything.
To get a better sense of what some of those limitation are here, I spoke with Ben Hanson. He’s the IT Director for the Borough and so he gets the challenge of keeping connections between remote outposts. He says there are lots of options for getting people connected, that’s not really the issue. But each one has its ups and downs.
“So there’s three mechanisms; you’ve got light, then electrical signaling over copper and then signaling through radio waves. They each have their own positives and negatives. Fiber optic of course is the fanciest and the fastest. The challenge is it’s still expensive to create the optics. Some of the high-end optics literally have small rubies in them. A single connection may cost $600 or $700 for just the end point. Not including all the equipment that that end point has to go into. So fiber optic is extremely fast, can push over distances of 10, 20, 50 kilometers. It’s measured in tens of miles. Whereas copper, the components are cheaper, but your distances are more in the one to three mile (range). So you’ve got much greater distance limitations and much lower speed. And then the radio spectrum is, in some respects seems very attractive, but because radio is open air, the contention is in frequency. There are just physical limitations with how far you can push with a given frequency and then how many other people or entities can use that frequency in a given space. So there are just different degrees of constraint.”
All of those options are in play here on the Kenai, and then some. But again, cost is the biggest issue. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Not enough customers to justify big investments, yet without the investments to make a better product, you don’t gain many new customers. And what’s frustrating for a lot of people and businesses is how close they might be to a high speed terminal. But still not close enough.
“It might be as simple as a fiber optic line running on one side of the highway and not being present on the other side. And it might cost a carrier upwards of $100,000 or $200,000 to bore underneath a primary roadway in order to get that fiber optic line to the other side. And with population densities typically fairly low, it makes it difficult for those businesses to pencil out a profit," Hanson says.
Everyone I spoke to about this agreed that investment is the key. You’re not going to get all this infrastructure out into the hinterlands for free, or likely, even in a way that’s attractive to private capital. But that’s not to say there aren’t any resources being put into solving this problem. The Connect America Fund, established in 2014, is a federal program offering grants to telecom companies operating in remote areas. Alaska Communications Systems, ACS, received such a grant last year. ACS spokesperson Heather Cavanaugh gave the borough assembly an overview of the program then.
“We’ll be bringing high-speed broadband to 22,000 new locations on the Peninsula. That’s 22,000 households and as we serve households, we’ll also be serving small businesses. The funding is specific for households. That’s what qualifies. We serve a lot of enterprise; larger businesses, governments, hospitals, the school district, those are all of our clients. What we haven’t been able to do is invest in bringing that high-speed to everybody’s houses and that’s what this funding is specifcially for is residents and small businesses.”
But there’s a big catch. The federal grant ACS is using stipulates that there can’t be another carrier where ACS is trying to expand. So if you can get service from another carrier, like GCI, you’re SOL.
I reached out to ACS to see how the project is coming along and if the new users are getting the speeds they’ve been promised. Cavanaugh replied with a brief email that only said they’re still working on it, they’re using fixed wireless, and what kinds of speeds and prices to expect. Ben Hanson says the fixed wireless technology is being deployed all over.
“So that’s the idea of building a tower that might be 100 to 150 feet tall. That tower might have visibility over a two to three square mile radius. So building a tower, bringing fast connections to that tower and then doing point-to-point wireless to homes. Spit Spots in Homer has extensively proved up that that concept works well and it’s being done across the country. So currently that seems to be the push. You can consolidate your investment in one central location and then the subscriber access components are less than a hundred bucks. And all of that radio equipment has come down in cost dramatically.”
Don Albrecht can point to all sorts of individual cases of people starting remote careers or small towns being rejuvenated because investments were made in technology. But whether we can get those same benefits here with a piecemeal, private approach, is yet to be seen.
“If we connect the world, and especially connect rural America, there’s huge benefits. There’s lots and lots of people who would prefer to not live in Los Angeles and New York, but that’s where their job is. And frankly, as a society, we’d be better off if there’s fewer people living in the big cities, causing pollution and clogging up the highways. But...it requires more than adequate (access). It requires better than that. We need better than that.”