Alaskan Telephone Co-op to Connect Remote Village With Fiber, Wireless Middle Mile

In 1999, Yakutat became home to one of Alaska’s first surf shops. Now, two decades later, the coastal community of 600 people is looking at another first for the community — high-speed Internet access.

Cordova Telecom Cooperative (CTC) will be expanding its broadband network to Yakutat from the co-op’s headquarters 220 miles away in Cordova, Alaska. Already, CTC offers wireline and mobile connectivity in and around Cordova. The new project, codenamed NICEY or New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat, will bring high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet access to the village, which has a large Native Alaskan population.

NICEY will be financed in large part by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect grant of nearly $19 million awarded to CTC in December. This money will help fund not only the deployment of the fiber network in Yakutat but also the construction of several remote wireless towers to connect the village to the broader Internet. “I don’t know how many grants of this size local groups have gotten,” CTC general manager and CEO Jeremiah Beckett told the Cordova Times. “It’s pretty big for Cordova.”

Neighbors Partner for Grant

Locals and visitors alike can only reach Yakutat by air or sea — there are no roads to the southeastern Alaskan community. The Internet is similarly hard to access for village residents.

Yakutat’s poor connectivity forces the school to limit student access to online materials and courses; businesses sometimes struggle to run card transactions. Households’ only available option for Internet access is satellite, typically hampered by low speeds, frequent service interruptions, and restrictive data caps.

CTC was a natural partner to tackle Yakutat’s limited connectivity. The telephone cooperative has already invested in fiber and wireless networks in the region and was on the lookout for ways to improve backbone connectivity. Cordova and Yakutat also share a long history and are home to many of the same tribes, including the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Native Village of Eyak.

logo-cordova-telecom-coop.png With community support for their ReConnect application, CTC was awarded a $18,888,668 grant to connect all of Yakutat’s full time residents and businesses to a 17-mile fiber network. Subscribers will have access to speeds of up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) with no data caps. The USDA funds will cover 75 percent of the total costs of more than $25 million, making the project possible for the telephone co-op to undertake.

Wireless on Alaska’s Rugged Coast

To bring the Internet to Yakutat’s future fiber network, CTC plans to connect the village with a series of remote wireless towers along the mountainous Alaskan coastline. The five tower sites, accessible only by helicopter, will compose a microwave middle mile network capable of speeds of 2.6 Gigabits per second once constructed. “It’s quite a big build to do,” Beckett shared.

The cooperative already operates 17 remote sites, giving it a valuable understanding of the vast challenges that come with constructing and monitoring farflung, inaccessible infrastructure. From bears gnawing on cables to earthquakes and winter storms, Alaska’s wildlife and extreme weather threaten network reliability. To address these likely problems, CTC is designing the sites to maximize redundancy, including for power supply and network connections, so that one issue doesn’t cause the entire system to fail.

There’s also the immense cost of building and maintaining a network of remote towers. Affordable middle mile access is scarce in rural Alaska, so connecting Yakutat to the wider world is a much greater challenge than building and financing the local fiber network. Accordingly, half of the entire NICEY project budget is dedicated just to constructing the wireless middle mile sites. Without the ReConnect grant, the project would not have been financially feasible for CTC.

Schools to Shore and Beyond

CTC expects to start offering broadband access in Yakutat by fall of 2021, and the village hopes to see opportunities follow.

Beckett, who grew up in Cordova, understands the potentially transformative power of connectivity for rural communities. His family was able to return to rural Alaska several years ago after CTC built its fiber network in Cordova, enabling telecommuting and remote work.

Yakutat residents look forward to the quality of life improvements promised by better Internet access. In CTC’s press release, Nathan Moulton, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe executive director, said:

The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe is excited to work with Cordova Telecom to bring high-speed broadband to Yakutat. The USDA grant investment in Yakutat will allow for greater services in Health Care, Schools, and Social Services and will positively impact lives and opportunities for everyone in our community.

Perhaps what excited the community most are the educational possibilities afforded by better connectivity in schools. “I think it’ll change a lot of opportunities in that area, especially for the youth,” said Beckett.

logo-yakutat.png In addition to modern broadband access in Yakutat, the NICEY project will boost coastal connectivity along the middle mile network, improving safety for pilots, fishing crews, Coast Guard vessels, and others operating in the region.

“Once we have rural America connected and rural Alaska connected,” said USDA state director Jerry Ward at the project announcement, “that’s when we come into the proper form of the future that is needed”

The value of a local partner stepping in to connect Yakutat is not overlooked. “What is really cool is that this is an Alaska company . . . and one of our neighbors, that’s getting this grant,” said Jon Erickson, Yakutat city and borough manager. “That just overwhelms us. I am grateful.”

Image of the Yakutat Fishing Hut by GCNorton (CC BY-SA)