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Faster Internet Speeds Could End Digital Divide in Western Alaska

Silhouette of internet tower in Noorvik, Alaska, at sunset.

Quintillion and GCI recently announced a partnership that will provide faster internet speeds to residents in Nome and Kotzebue. These services will make the rural hubs similar to urban cities, and potentially reduce the digital divide for Western Alaskans.

Heather Handyside, a spokesperson for GCI, says having 1 Gigabit of internet speeds this far north is a game changer for rural Alaska.

“And the kinds of speeds we are bringing to these communities are urban speeds, not just urban Alaska speeds, but speeds you would get in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. These are the fastest [internet] speeds that are available to consumers anywhere in the nation. So, it’s really putting Alaska ahead.”

– Heather Handyside, GCI

Currently, residents in Nome and Kotzebue already have access to unlimited bandwidth internet through local providers that are connected to Quintillion’s fiber. But those speeds are significantly slower than 1 Gigabit services.

TelAlaska has had an agreement with Quintillion to provide internet packages using the undersea fiber optic cable for more than a year, however as Michael McHale points out, those services only come with roughly 25 Mbps speeds. 1 Gigabit internet runs at about 940 Mbps according to telecommunications companies.

Both Handyside and Chief Revenue Officer for Quintillion, Michael McHale, agree that this new partnership is focused on the consumers in Nome and Kotzebue.

“I think having multiple competitors in a market with different types of infrastructure, that are both capable of delivering a great service should create an environment of innovation for everybody. Who benefits from that ultimately is the consumer. That is the mission.”

– Michael McHale, Quintillion

According to the press release from both companies, in addition to improved internet service, the new partnership will bring internet protocol television (IPTV) services and support GCI’s ongoing upgrade to 4G LTE wireless service. However, this opportunity is not being extended beyond Nome and Kotzebue yet.

The rest of the Bering Strait region continues to struggle with connectivity issues as one resident in Teller illustrated in the fall of 2020.

“Because it’s not only broadband, it’s cellphone service, landline services…We pay an extremely high price in the villages. We’re paying monthly bills of $150 to over $300 for only two lines of cellphone and they don’t even work in our homes. And even our workplaces don’t have internet or computers.”

– Teller Resident

That input was shared by Blanche Garnie during a public teleconference with Senator Dan Sullivan, hosted by Norton Sound Health Corporation in August, 2020.

According to Quintillion’s McHale, the company is working with Bering Strait’s Native Corporation on a potential solution for poor internet in villages. They recently applied for a grant so Quintillion can build out their existing internet infrastructure in other regional communities.

“And hopefully we’ll get the nod on that, we’ll win that grant, and we’ll be able to take our cable landing station and fiber optics that are in Nome today and expand out 65 – 70 miles to the east into the White Mountain region, and further leverage that infrastructure for additional markets as well.”

– Michael McHale, Quintillion

McHale says negotiations between Quintillion and GCI started before the coronavirus pandemic arrived, but the companies admit that COVID-19 has certainly highlighted the need for better connectivity in rural Alaska.
Having the option for 1 Gigabit internet speeds in Nome and Kotzebue makes the two cities the northernmost locations in the country with this specific service.

Handyside says the specific packages and offerings for GCI customers with this new service has not been finalized yet. But more information will be coming in the next couple months along with technician crews who will be installing and upgrading the necessary equipment in Nome.

Image at top: One of many internet towers in rural Alaska — this one, in Noorvik. Some customers in the Alaska Bush connect to internet through village-based towers, like this one, that relay signals from remote repeater sites, powered by diesel generators. Photo: Lauren Frost, KNOM.

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We acknowledge that KNOM Radio Mission is located on the customary lands of Indigenous peoples. 

Based in the Bering Strait region, KNOM broadcasts throughout the homelands of the Iñupiaq, Siberian Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Yup’ik peoples.