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In rural Alaska, federal money aims to transform internet access


In many parts of rural Alaska, the internet is slow, and it is expensive. But hundreds of miles of new fiber optic cable are on the way. Federal money is bringing broadband to remote Alaska Native communities. NPR's Nina Kravinsky reports from the western Alaska town of Bethel.

NINA KRAVINSKY, BYLINE: The city of 6,000 is about 400 miles off the road system, so there aren't a lot of options for shoppers.


KRAVINSKY: On a recent weekend, an internet outage forced the grocery store to only accept cash for a couple of days. Without a way to use her debit card, Balassa Larson couldn't pay for some of her food.

BALASSA LARSON: Maybe I'll go on a diet (laughter).

KRAVINSKY: Internet outages are fairly common in this part of rural Alaska, which uses radio waves to get internet to customers. But Bethel Native Corporation President Ana Hoffman says a better way is coming.

ANA HOFFMAN: This is going to be a transformational change.

KRAVINSKY: The Native Corporation is taking on a fiber optic cable project that will bring high-speed internet to several remote Alaska communities. Funding comes from $1,000,000,000 the federal government set aside for tribal broadband programs across the country.

HOFFMAN: This is the way of the future, is having good connectivity. And so we will just be in line to participate.

KRAVINSKY: Hoffman says the project will bring internet to Bethel through a company called GCI, currently the only internet provider in the area. Right now, GCI's customers in Bethel pay about $300 a month for much slower service than customers in urban areas. GCI spokesperson Heather Handyside says that's about to change.

HEATHER HANDYSIDE: So 200 times faster and more than $100 cheaper. The cost of the plans may slightly change over the years, but it will be exactly what we have in Anchorage.

KRAVINSKY: GCI is betting on fiber optic as the future of internet in rural Alaska, even as low-orbit satellite services like Starlink continue to ramp up. GCI sees fiber as more reliable than satellites.


KRAVINSKY: Not far from Bethel is Napaskiak, a village of around 400. It's only accessible by plane this time of year. Leaders expect the fiber optic cable will reach them by 2025. Napaskiak tribal administrator Sharon Williams says it can't come soon enough.

SHARON WILLIAMS: We never had that fast internet. Some of us - like, we go to Anchorage. We get to see how fast it is. As a community, I don't know. I can't imagine how it will be for us.

KRAVINSKY: But Williams does know faster internet will make it possible to apply for more grants to improve public health and safety, and her staff will miss fewer online trainings.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here, take one for Calvin (ph) so he can airraq.

KRAVINSKY: Back in Bethel, Native Corporation President Ana Hoffman is teaching a group of kids a game similar to cat's cradle. They're knitting a knotted piece of yarn between their fingers to make shapes. A broom or a bird are common ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Boom. You did it.

KRAVINSKY: The Yup'ik word for this game is airraq. It's also called a story string, and Hoffman chose it as a name for the project.

HOFFMAN: We have such a rich life. We have so much cultural knowledge and expression. We're going to have the ability to share the beauty of our culture with the rest of the world.

KRAVINSKY: The game's been passed down in Yup'ik families for generations, and a story string is a fitting name for a cable that Hoffman hopes will bring in stories from the world and bring Yup'ik stories to the world.

Nina Kravinsky, NPR News, Bethel, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.