Nushagak Cooperative’s fiber project slowly moves toward delivering faster internet
Almost all of Bristol Bay does not have access to high-speed broadband internet. According to standards set by the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Development Program, communities here are either unserved or underserved, and that can affected how communities operate. In Dillingham, for example, City Hall offices don’t have enough internet access through the local utility to house certain software programs in the Cloud. Instead, the city has to budget for additional hardware. Even if the city did have enough gigabytes each month, they would contend with a sometimes slow and spotty connection.
Nushagak Cooperative, the local utility company, is a major internet provider in the region. CEO Will Chaney said that reliable internet is especially important for rural Alaska.
“Our physical separation really shines a light on the need for that durable broadband connection,” he said. “And fiber [is] something that the cooperative recognizes is the gold standard for broadband delivery.”
Since 2021, Nushagak Cooperative has been working to develop a fiber-optic network for the region, which would deliver unlimited, fast internet service. Originally, it had planned to complete a route from Levelock to Dillingham by this April. The co-op houses its fiber cables in Levelock and would lay roughly 100 miles of cable. The co-op was working through a USDA grant that required it to contribute $5.7 million to the project out of the budgeted $22.4 million. But the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law presented a new source of funding and shifted the project timeline. The cooperative now plans to finish laying cables in the fall of 2024.
“Where [it] took a turn was Curyung Tribe and Choggiung Ltd. realized that they had access to a higher level of funding but did not require a match. And they approached the cooperative with the offer initially,” Chaney said.
In 2021, the Dillingham village corporation Choggiung Ltd. and the Curyung Tribe applied for a Tribal Broadband Grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Choggiung Ltd. CFO Brendyn Shiflea said they saw the opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership.
“What that meant was that essentially Nushagak members, of which a lot of them were also Choggiung shareholders, would be able to get the benefit of high-speed, reliable broadband internet without having a whole bunch of increases in cost to do that,” he said.
It took nearly a year to secure the funding, according to Shiflea, and they officially received the grant last October. The Curyung Tribe did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.
This type of development impacts the environment. Similar projects in northern Alaska have affected permafrost levels. In 2018, a subsidiary of GCI Liberty and Quintillion Networks both contributed to permafrost thaw through fiber-optic cable projects, which causes greenhouse gas emissions. Chaney said Nushagak Cooperative has worked with surrounding communities to complete environmental surveys and obtain building permits. Nushagak’s proposed route and easement from Levelock to Dillingham are open to public comment until mid-June.
Levelock Natives Ltd. is another local partner for the project. In a written statement, General Manager Tiara Turner said the initiative “opens up further opportunities to advance education, expansion and infrastructure.”
Turner also said that the corporation was “excited about the improvements and benefits this project will generate for [their] shareholders and residents living in rural Alaska.”
Once the fiber has been laid, the cables will link to GCI’s proposed Airraq Network, a $42-million-dollar fiber project funded by the same grant as Nushagak’s.
Nushagak's internet rates are currently more than twice the national average. Chaney, the cooperative's CEO, said the fiber network will reduce maintenance costs. But internet rates will remain the same, at least initially.
“As the broadband from our fiber network is developed and put to use as it matures, we hope to see savings in cost of operation and that could lead to decreased prices,” he said.
The cooperative also faces competition from Space X’s Starlink. Dozens of its accounts have closed in recent months. Starlink offers unlimited internet through low-flying satellites — at about half the price of Nushagak. The company charges a $600 one-time fee and customer installation and repair services are remote.
As for the City of Dillingham, it plans to add a Starlink dish to make use of both internet providers — a more stable option, at least for now.
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