Ed. note: This blog is cross-posted from The U.S. Department of Commerce.
Last week, I traveled to Anchorage for the annual economic summit hosted by the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, a non-profit regional economic development organization. The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference is working to improve the quality of life and drive responsible development across the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, the Kodiak Archipelago and the Pribilof Islands.
Last week’s summit had a packed agenda, covering everything from energy conservation to sustainable fishing practices. One big topic of conversation was broadband and the power of high-speed Internet to open up economic, educational and social opportunities in some of the poorest, most isolated communities in our nation.
It’s no wonder that the Alaska state nickname is “The Last Frontier.” The state is more than double the size of Texas, with more than 3 million lakes, 34,000 miles of shoreline, and 29,000 square miles of ice fields. But with fewer than 750,000 residents, Alaska includes some of the most remote, sparsely populated pockets of the U.S. Many Alaska Natives reside in tiny villages with just a few hundred people and lead subsistence lifestyles.
Broadband offers these communities a way to connect with the wider world and access everything from online classes to healthcare services to job opportunities. It also offers Alaska Natives a way to preserve their indigenous culture for future generations and share it with a global audience.
At the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, we see first-hand evidence of this through our investments in several Alaska broadband projects:
With funding from NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska State Library established public computer centers at 97 public libraries across the state. The federal investment helped pay for computers and terrestrial and satellite Internet connections, as well as an innovative videoconferencing network. It also helped pay for digital literacy training to help local residents take advantage of everything from electronic commerce and e-government services to online job interviews and distance education offerings.
The Online with Libraries – or Alaska OWL – project is using the new videoconferencing capability in all sorts of creative ways. The Juneau Library organized a virtual field trip for local children to see dinosaurs on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. The Unalaska City Library hosted a session for students in a local high school carpentry class to learn about a union apprenticeship program from the training coordinator for the Anchorage-based Local 367 of the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. And libraries in Craig, Haines and Kenai have used the system to facilitate an interactive Shakespeare “Reader’s Theater,” with patrons at each of the libraries taking turns reading play passages.
Among the archived videoconferences available through the OWL system: a video from the Inupiat Heritage Center that recounts the Inupiaq legend of hunting mammoths near Anaktuvuk Pass, and an introduction to the Tlingit Language that starts with easy words and commonly used phrases.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks used a separate BTOP award to expand the work of the Alaska Distance Education Consortium, a university-led coalition of partners from across the education, healthcare, social services and non-profit sectors working to expand distance learning opportunities. The federal investment supported a range of projects to help close the digital divide and promote online learning. And it focused much of its work on Alaska Native villages, where the gap is the widest.
One project funded through the Distance Education Consortium was a "telehealth coordinator" certificate program run by the non-profit Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The program teaches students how to operate videoconferencing systems and telemedicine carts to gather patient data to be transmitted to distant hospitals. The Consortium also supported a program at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center – part of the State Labor Department's Institute of Technology – that trains rural Internet technicians known as "Village Internet agents." Another project funded through the Consortium was an online homework help service run by the Alaska Library Network.
With funding from NTIA's State Broadband Initiative Program, Connect Alaska has partnered with the Association of Alaska School Boards to host a series of local technology workshops in a handful of bush villages. At a recent workshop in Chevak, instructors helped build local e-commerce Websites to let residents show off and sell their Native artwork, including dolls, baskets and jewelry. At another workshop in Metlakatla, instructors created community websites and taught residents how to record and upload traditional stories and cultural folklore.
Connect Alaska also uses NTIA funding to map broadband availability across the state for the National Broadband Map, and to finance the work of the Statewide Broadband Task Force, which aims to close remaining broadband gaps.
These projects show the potential of technology to connect people living in even the most remote corners of the U.S. to tomorrow's opportunities, and tie them to the rich cultural heritages of their past. We are proud of NTIA’s role in making these projects possible. And we look forward to hearing more stories about how broadband is improving life in The Last Frontier.
Anne Neville is the Director of the State Broadband Initiative for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.