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Economy

Akiak is getting high-speed internet after the pandemic exposed the digital divide

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Katie Basile
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KYUK
Youth hang out near the school in Akiak, Alaska to access wireless internet through their phones. Homes in Akiak do not currently have access to high-speed internet, but all of that will change later this fall when the village gets connected to broadband internet through low Earth orbit satellites. October 19, 2021.

When the U.S. went into lockdown, many people moved most of their lives online. That wasn’t always possible in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where residents still don’t have access to high-speed internet at home. But that’s about to change, starting in Akiak, which will turn on broadband internet for all its residents later this month.

In her home in Akiak, a Yup’ik village with about 460 residents in Western Alaska, Lena Foss opens her broken dryer that she salvaged from the dump.

“First thing I did was YouTube how to replace a belt,” Foss said. “But the internet was so slow and I thought it was wasting gigabytes, so I turned that off before I completely finished how to fix the dryer.”

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s remote location is why it still lacks high-speed internet. That has excluded people like Foss from much of ordinary modern life.

“It's so embarrassing to check the bank by phone when I know, you know, it's internet easy, but it's so slow,” Foss said.

One of her 460 or so neighbors in Akiak is Shawna Williams. She’s a mother of five and has a full-time job. During the pandemic, Williams decided to go back to school for her college degree. She has the fastest internet plan available in Akiak, but she said that it still can't handle video all the time, which means Williams attends her remote classes by phone. Still, she pays more for internet access than most people in Akiak can afford.

“Three-hundred fourteen [dollars] and some cents per month for internet that isn’t reliable,” Williams said. “On top of fuel costs, food costs, electricity, we just barely make it month to month.”

But once Akiak gets high-speed broadband later this month, Williams’ bill will be a quarter of what it is now. Her internet speeds and data limits will more than double.

Similar advances in broadband access are happening all across the nation. The main reason for this is because of COVID-19, according to Blair Levin, a broadband expert at the Brookings Institution.

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Katie Basile
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Akiak is a small Yup’ik (Alaska Native) community on the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska. The rural village has never had access to affordable high-speed internet, but all of that will change this fall when every resident gains access to broadband internet through low Earth orbit satellites. October 21, 2021 in Akiak, Alaska.

“It really focused the mind of everyone: Democrats, Republicans, governors, Senators, on the importance of getting broadband everywhere and making sure that everybody can afford to get on,” Levin said.

Since the pandemic hit, the federal government has made billions of dollars available to expand broadband. A good chunk went to rural tribal lands, some of the least connected areas in the country.

But money was only a piece of the puzzle for Akiak. The tribe is also relying on satellite technology that just became available this year in Alaska. Low Earth orbit satellites, operated by a company called OneWeb, can deliver high-speed internet to rural areas that cables can’t reach.

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Katie Basile
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Akiak will be the first community in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to bring high-speed broadband internet to all its residents. Akiak youth talk with engineers and technicians about which house they will be installing an antenna on next. October 19, 2021 in Akiak, Alaska.

Shawna’s father and Akiak Chief Mike Williams Sr. said that the tribe was motivated to act quickly on these opportunities after seeing the pandemic’s effect on learning in the village.

“The kids have lost between year and year-and-a-half of their education because of no technology, no internet at the home, and no remote learning,” Williams Sr. said. “We may be forced to do a lockdown again, but we're going to be prepared this time.”

Akiak will be the first community in the Y-K Delta to bring broadband internet to all its residents, but it won’t be the last. At least 16 tribes in the region are following Akiak’s blueprint to install broadband in their villages.

As technicians install broadband receivers in Foss’ living room she watches eagerly, standing next to her broken dryer.

“When I have internet, everything I need for this dryer will be ordered,” Foss said.

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Katie Basile
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Later this fall, internet speeds in Akiak, Alaska will double as the community gains access to broadband internet through low Earth orbit satellites. Technicians and engineers install antenna receivers on Lena Foss’ home on October 19, 2021.

She said that she could learn to repair her neighbors’ broken appliances too.

“All this broken stuff would probably be fixed by YouTube. I would probably start a small business, calling it 'YouTube-Fix-It-All,'” Foss said.

That’s just the beginning of her online goals. Foss wants to be able to google the laws around her native allotment lands, research grants for her village, and file her taxes online.

“Internet will open my eyes, I think. I know it will,” Foss said.

For decades, the Y-K Delta has been left behind in the digital revolution. People here are excited to catch up.

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