Unalaskans Plead Their Case To FCC Commissioner, But Better Broadband Remains Years Away

Aug 8, 2018

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr (right) and Vice Mayor Dennis Robinson listen to Unalaskans share their broadband concerns at City Hall.
Credit Laura Kraegel/KUCB

Unalaskans are fed up with the slow internet and dropped calls that define the island's telecommunications.

Brendan Carr said he got that message loud and clear during his Tuesday visit for the Federal Communications Commission. But it's unlikely his trip will produce concrete changes anytime soon.

In his first year as an FCC Commissioner, Brendan Carr has traveled to 17 different states to learn how lacking broadband and spotty phone service can hold back rural communities. But Unalaska still managed to surprise him.

"When we landed, I turned my phone off airplane mode and it said 'no service,' which is something I had never seen on my phone," he said. 

At a packed public reception for Carr, Unalaskans took the opportunity to throw out dozens of examples of the ways their lives are affected by slow, inconsistent services.

"I've lost about a half dozen customers because they couldn't get a hold of me," said Mike Lloyd, owner of cargo company Aleutian Expeditors.  

"Our internet budget is nearly a quarter of our operating budget," said Karen Kresh of the Unalaska Public Library.

"It takes at least 50 percent longer on the island to do a forklift training program," said Alan Davis, a safety professional in the seafood industry. 

Carr said he heard the same complaints over and over again — from seafood processors and the school district to tugboat captains and city officials. 

He agreed his agency needs to help, but stayed noncommittal when Unalaskans pressed him for a timeline.

"This has been a great learning opportunity to hear firsthand some of the unique challenges," he said. "There's not going to be a silver bullet."

In general, Carr said the FCC is looking at ways to roll back regulations and encourage private investment in rural areas.

Some telecom companies are already considering how to improve service in Unalaska. Quintillion has spoken with local leaders about fiber optic cable, and GCI has even surveyed the island. But company officials say construction would take years — if they decide to go through it.

Unalaskans weren't happy with such an up-in-the-air agenda, with several citing GCI's lucrative federal subsidies.

"This is 2018. It shouldn't take five years to do it," said Emmett Fitch, CEO of the smaller, local company Optimera Wi-Fi. "We could have it online a year from now if we had the same funding."

Carr said the FCC is always considering ways to allocate its grant money more effectively and would love to see more competition in Alaska. But he declined to get into specifics when island residents asked if the agency could help finance a fiber project.