“We’ve accomplished a great deal as a result of the Recovery Act funding,” Brandon McBride, the department’s rural utilities service administrator, said in a statement. “But we still have more to do. Too many rural Americans are still living on the wrong side of the digital divide. USDA is committed to bridging that divide by getting more rural Americans online at work, at school and at home.”
He recalled an earlier effort where “in Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska … cable was pulled by hand under a frozen river to make broadband available to Native Alaskan villages for the first time.”
The fresh allocation could be good news for schools like Yakutat Elementary, a small school located in southeastern Alaska that is mostly accessible by ferry. Administrators told Connect Alaska researchers that the school uses a combination of wi-fi and LAN (local area network) to access the Internet but no more than two people can use the Internet at the same time.
To have access to online testing and other digital content, the school needs greater bandwidth.
While communities in Anchorage and Fairbanks have access to fiber-optic cables, outlying areas to the southwest, west, and northwest have none. About a quarter of Alaska's schools must use satellite service providers.
And then there’s the cost. Offering Internet access in Alaska’s schools is an expensive endeavor, especially for the poorest and most remote school districts. It costs those districts on average $163 a month per student and staff member on the Internet, compared to the $6 a month per student and staff member in Alaska’s wealthier urban schools, which have bigger budgets.
The irony is that it is the most isolated schools that could most benefit from stronger Internet. In Connected Nation’s survey, most rural schools said their students use broadband to access educational content, for online testing, and to conduct research in class.
Two out of three rural schools said they rely on Internet to give their students more course choices through distance learning, where an educator is teaching from another location. Statewide, only 58 percent of schools said they use distance learning.
Federal officials have been working to expand Internet access in Alaska schools since before the early 2000s through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program which pays a portion of needy school districts’ Internet and phone service. The program funneled $62.6 million to Alaska schools last year and requests for funding by state school districts in 2015 increased more than 44 percent from 2014, from $64.9 million to $93.9 million.
In July 2014, the commission announced that its new short-term goal was for every school to have Internet access of at least 100 mbps (megabits per second) per 1,000 students and staff; and 1 gbps (gigabits per second) of Internet access per 1,000 users in the long term.