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Window closes for Alaska Native tribes to apply for broadband funding

Courtesy of OptimERA
In an effort to help rural communities close the “digital gap,” the U.S. Department of Commerce is offering grants to Indigenous tribes to help develop their broadband infrastructure.

The window for Alaska Native tribes to apply for grants to build broadband infrastructure closes Wednesday night.

Approximately 60,000 people in Alaska live without broadband, impeding access to services like telemedicine and remote education. In an effort to help communities close that “digital gap,” the federal government has offered $980 million to help deliver broadband to Indigenous tribes throughout the nation.

Alaska Tribal Spectrum, a nonprofit organization based in Kenai, is one of several organizations trying to help tribes bring broadband to their communities. The company aims to bring all the state’s tribes together into a statewide network.

Dennis Robinson, who acts as the nonprofit’s policy board chairman, says more than 100 tribes have joined the consortium so far, but he expects a last-minute rush as the deadline closes in.

“We realized that not all tribes will have the wherewithal to be able to apply for this, or even the knowledge to apply for it and take and get the benefit of it,” Robinson said.

But Robinson isn’t the only one who recognizes the challenges of building broadband infrastructure in rural Alaska.

Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference has also developed plans to help bring broadband access to underserved communities.

“It probably is going to get a little messy and a little tricky,” Executive Director Shirley Marquardt said. “To anybody who is not thoroughly immersed in the technology of communications, it's Latin.”

To help simplify the process, the regional organization has teamed up with Alaska Tribal Broadband, a Native-owned telecom company, to help communities build out their broadband infrastructure. Their plan is called Broadband-In-A-Box, which Marquardt says helps communities build and manage their technology systems.

Despite the various organizations offering support, some tribes are applying for funding individually and negotiating their own arrangements.

Even if tribes do apply for the grants individually, Robinson still urges tribes to band together. He says there is strength in numbers.

“Our door is always open,” Robinson said. “You will eventually see the benefit of what we've got here. And speaking in a large voice and one voice would be a whole lot better than a million little voices.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said Wednesday was the deadline for Alaska Native tribes to apply for broadband licenses. In fact, it is the deadline to apply for grant money to build broadband infrastructure.

Theo Greenly reports from the Aleutians as a Report for America corps member. He got his start in public radio at KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and has produced radio stories and podcasts for stations around the country.
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