U.S. first lady Jill Biden, left, and first lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy watch a performance by Ayaprun Elitnaurvik students during an event at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik is a Yugtun immersion school in Bethel. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

U.S. first lady Jill Biden, left, and first lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy watch a performance by Ayaprun Elitnaurvik students during an event at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik is a Yugtun immersion school in Bethel. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Digital divide: Jill Biden visit touts efforts to connect Alaska Native villages to outside world

Jill Biden visited Bethel on a stopover to Japan to highlight internet-access progress.

ANCHORAGE — For years, when the tiny Alaska Native village of Rampart’s awful internet service would go down, the only way to reach the outside world was to await the small airplane that touched down daily with supplies and the occasional visitor.

“We had no way of getting ahold of anybody out of Rampart other than going to the airport and telling the pilot,” said tribal administrator Margaret Moses. The pilot would relay messages — including word of medical emergencies — after flying 100 miles to Fairbanks.

The Koyukon Athabascan village of about 50 people eventually upgraded to a satellite company, at a hefty price of $3,000 a month.

It’s one of scores of Alaska Native villages where spotty and expensive internet coverage is the norm — if it’s available at all. And such service can be the only lifeline for remote communities, many of which can be reached only by boat or plane.

Now, efforts to address inequities in a longstanding digital divide are underway across the nation’s largest state by land area, particularly in Alaska Native villages, with funding provided by the 2021 infrastructure bill and other federal programs as part of the Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative.

Overall, the bill provides $65 billion in funding to improve broadband access in the U.S. Every federally recognized tribe, including 229 in Alaska, can receive up to $500,000.

Jill Biden visited the southwest Alaska community of Bethel late Wednesday on a stopover to Japan to highlight progress being made under the program, including the award of $125 million last year for two broadband infrastructure projects in the area. In doing so, it was the the first visit by a first lady to Bethel, which is about 400 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by air.

First lady Jill Biden greets Bethel residents Coralie Williams, 7 months, and her mom Courtney Williams, after an event at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

First lady Jill Biden greets Bethel residents Coralie Williams, 7 months, and her mom Courtney Williams, after an event at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

“With high-speed internet, you’ll have better access to critical health care, new educational tools, and remote job opportunities,” the Anchorage Daily News reported Biden told a crowd at the local high school.

“It will change lives. It will save lives,” said Biden, who was accompanied by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, an Alaska Democrat, and Alaska first lady Rose Dunleavy.

Dunleavy said the broadband investments in the Bethel area will help create jobs. She told the crowd: “Rural Alaska has always been on the wrong side of the digital divide until today.”

An additional $5 million in grants were awarded Wednesday, including $500,000 to the Hoonah Indian Association of southeast Alaska to help train people for jobs created by a tourism boom.

Nine other $500,000 grants were awarded to three tribes in California, helping increase the speed to 314 tribal households for the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians; providing equipment and training to the Seminole Tribe of Florida; and upgrading 17 households with high speed internet service in the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians (Gun Lake) in Michigan.

Other grants went to tribes in Minnesota, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

“What’s been hard in administering this program is the need is just so immense when you look at the totality of Indian Country as a whole and the lack of critical infrastructure that hasn’t been made available previously to most of these communities,” said Adam Geisler, a division chief with the administration’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration..

First lady Jill Biden addresses a crowd at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. From left, Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, Biden, Haaland, first lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy, and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman applaud. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

First lady Jill Biden addresses a crowd at Bethel Regional High School in Bethel, Alaska on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Bethel to highlight the Biden-Harris administration’s investments to expand broadband internet connectivity in Native American communities, including Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. From left, Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, Biden, Haaland, first lady of Alaska Rose Dunleavy, and Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman applaud. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Three-quarters of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. applied for over $5.8 billion in funding when the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program launched. However, the program is currently funded at just short of $3 billion, most if it from the infrastructure bill. So far, nearly $1.8 billion has been awarded to 157 tribal entities to improve broadband access.

In Alaska, 21 projects have received more than $386 million.

In the Yupik subsistence community of Akiak, 30 miles north of Bethel, tribal officials provided free broadband to the village’s 100 homes during the COVID-19 pandemic until grant money was exhausted.

The Akiak Native Community tribe wanted to use its $500,000 to at least subsidize that service. However, its grant was assigned to its Alaska Native regional corporation, which will have an internet provider eventually bring fiber broadband to Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages.

That’s left subsistence residents in Akiak, where a quarter of all families fall below the poverty line, to either pay $90 a month for their own satellite service or wait for fiber.

Kevin Hamer is general manager of the Yukon Delta Tribal Broadband Consortium, a nonprofit tribal organization made up of 18 tribal governments in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta area, including Akiak. He believes there should be flexibility in the government funding to provide immediate, affordable broadband while tribal communities wait for fiber broadband, which could take years.

Tribal communities often have expensive and terrible internet service unless they can afford to pay for their own satellite service, including shelling out $600 for the equipment. Without satellite service, there is no video classrooms for children, telehealth with medical professionals, or telecommuting.

“You are excluded from all the benefits of the digital economy,” Hamer said.

More in News

The Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Encore docks in Juneau in October of 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for t​​he Week of April 22

Here’s what to expect this week.

The Hubbard, the newest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, docks at the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal on April 18. It is generally scheduled to provide dayboat service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. (Photo by Laurie Craig)
Ongoing Alaska Marine Highway woes are such that marketing to Lower 48 tourists is being scaled back

“We just disappoint people right now,” AMHS’ marine director says during online public forum Monday.

Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Senate considers plan that would allow teens to independently seek mental health care

Amendment by Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, would lower the age for behavioral health care to 16

Rep. George Rauscher, R-Sutton, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, March 28, at the Alaska State Capitol. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
House approves tougher route for environmental protections on Alaska rivers, lakes

HB95 would require lawmakers approve any “Tier III” labeling, the highest level of federal protection.

Rep. Andi Story (left, wearing gray), Rep. Sara Hannan (center, wearing purple) and Sen. Jesse Kiehl (wearing suit) talk with constituents following a legislative town hall on Thursday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
All three members of Juneau’s legislative delegation seeking reelection

Reps. Andi Story and Sara Hannan, and Sen. Jesse Kiehl unopposed ahead of June 1 filing deadline

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, April 21, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The “Newtok Mothers” assembled as a panel at the Arctic Encounter Symposium on April 11 discuss the progress and challenges as village residents move from the eroding and thawing old site to a new village site called Mertarvik. Photographs showing deteriorating conditions in Newtok are displayed on a screen as the women speak at the event, held at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Relocation of eroding Alaska Native village seen as a test case for other threatened communities

Newtok-to-Mertarvik transformation has been decades in the making.

Bailey Woolfstead, right, and her companion Garrett Dunbar examine the selection of ceramic and wood dishes on display at the annual Empty Bowls fundraiser on behalf of the Glory Hall at Centennial Hall on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Empty Bowls provides a full helping of fundraising for the Glory Hall

Annual soup event returns to Centennial Hall as need for homeless shelter’s services keeps growing.

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon and her husband Greg. (Photo courtesy of the City and Borough of Juneau)
Greg Weldon, husband of Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon, killed in motorcycle accident Sunday morning

Accident occurred in Arizona while auto parts store co-owner was on road trip with friend

Most Read