Thanks to the Denali Commission and a recent draft report on telecommunications access in the Bush, we now have a clear picture of how far into rural Alaska the telecommunications revolution has penetrated.
There is surprising progress, considering how hard it can be just to maintain electrical power in tiny villages where howling blizzards and 40-below temperatures are common. But there still is a long way to go before rural Alaska has universal, affordable and equitable access to the opportunities offered by the Internet.
Nearly every Alaska village of more than 25 people has touch-tone phone service. But 167 communities did not have local dial-up Internet service, the least costly option.
Even where the Internet is available, high costs preclude widespread use. One Bush phone company serving 58 villages estimates that just 5 percent to 10 percent of its users are online.
It will take a variety of creative initiatives to overcome those hurdles. For example, a federal grant will connect all Alaska tribal offices to the Internet. Roughly 190 schools are on the net through a GCI program. Because federal law gives schools discount access for educational purposes, it will take a federal waiver to allow village residents to come in after school and use the Internet at their own expense.
Entrepreneurs and industry have important roles, too. In McGrath, the local power utility offers high speed and wireless net connections. On St. Paul in the Pribilofs, the local Native corporation offers the Internet along with cable TV service. Just last week, a consortium of General Communication Inc., OTZ Telephone Cooperative and Maniilaq Association announced plans to offer local dial-up and high-speed Internet access to 10 villages in the Kotzebue region.
Still, the task is too important to leave to the serendipity of the market. The state and federal governments have a long history in Alaska of helping supply essential services where they are wanting. Government played a key role in building Alaska's telephone and television service, even in urban areas.
It's a big task requiring many players. Sen. Ted Stevens, as good as anyone at delivering federal support, has pleaded with the telecommunications industry to help develop ways to bring Internet technology to Alaska's Bush.
Cyber technology conceivably could do more to break the isolation of rural Alaska than air service, telephone and television. With the Internet, enterprising villagers could find worldwide markets for crafts, fish or forest products. They could offer professional services or other knowledge-based products. They could attract adventure tourists from around the globe. Villages could access a world of online information that would have been the envy of mid-20th century libraries in big cities. They could harness the energy and creativity of rural residents and communicate with the world in ways that, at least potentially, could leapfrog much of the evolution of the industrialized world.
But to take full advantage of technological tools, rural students will need better education than most of their schools are now delivering. And access to the Internet will need to be faster and better than it is today.
Throughout history, Alaska's Native peoples have proven adept at integrating new technology into traditional cultures. For anyone living in the Bush, Native or non-Native, success requires resourcefulness and energy. The Internet can amplify those virtues.
The Internet can bring the world to village doorsteps, creating a whole new set of economic possibilities. With many smaller villages facing real questions about economic sustainability, the Internet could be a key link to a viable, even prosperous, future.
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