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Bethel-area fiber broadband project gets a Yup’ik name; ‘Airraq is a string used to tell stories’

The Airraq network will bring fiber broadband to the Bethel-area.

Roxanne Saddler is surrounded by a group of costumed kids at the ONC multipurpose building in Bethel on Halloween, knitting a loop of yarn around her fingers and twisting it into shapes. She stops and shows them an owl. She says that it’s the hardest shape to make.

This game is called airraq, something akin to cat’s cradle. Saddler learned how to airraq from her grandmother, and she said that the game taught her patience. Patience is something that internet users are familiar with in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta, where connections can be slow and expensive.

“So airraq is a string used to tell stories,” said Bethel Native Corporation CEO Ana Hoffman. That’s why it’s a fitting new name for the fiber broadband project coming to Bethel. In the end what we will have is fiber, representing this string, as a way to tell our stories from this region and also to receive stories in,” she said.

The new project will lay 405 miles of fiber optic cable from Dillingham to Bethel. Project organizers say that it will bring faster, cheaper internet to Bethel, as well as nine other communities in the area:

  • Platinum
  • Eek
  • Napaskiak
  • Oscarville
  • Atmautluak
  • Kasigluk
  • Nunapitchuk
  • Quinhagak
  • Tuntutuliak

Heather Handyside, a spokesperson for GCI, was also at the Halloween party. She said that the name was Hoffman’s idea, but that GCI is on board.

“People’s eyes here in the Y-K Delta, they just light up. They get it, right? So the name is a little hard to pronounce and a little hard to spell, maybe, for folks not of Yup'ik descent. But the extra explanation, the extra work to make people understand, it’s worth it,” Handyside said.

The money for the project is coming from a federal grant, and it aims to bring Anchorage plans to Bethel and the nine other communities. Handyside said that means that those communities in the Y-K Delta will be offered the same plans as internet users on the road system once the project is completed.

The project is scheduled to be done by the end of 2024.

Nina was a temporary news reporter at KYUK. She comes to Bethel from NPR, where she's a producer at Morning Edition.