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Senate passes fast-tracked rural school broadband bill, Dunleavy promises quick signature

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, speaks in support of a bill that would boost rural schools' internet speeds on March 25, 2024. (Eric Stone/Alaska Public Media)
Eric Stone
Alaska Public Media
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, speaks in support of a bill that would boost rural schools' internet speeds on March 25, 2024.

On March 25, the Alaska Senate passed a fast-tracked bill that aims to boost internet speeds at rural schools. The House passed the bill last week, and it now heads to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s desk.

The bill increases the amount of state money provided to school districts to purchase broadband service. Right now, schools are only reimbursed for 25-megabit-per-second service; the bill would provide funding for schools to purchase 100-megabit service under the federal E-Rate program. It’s estimated to cost the state $39 million.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, said that the bill would take advantage of an up to nine-to-one federal funding match.

“Many schools throughout Alaska still lack the capacity to execute standard tests required by state statutes and without disruption (to) other classrooms due to the bandwidth,” Hoffman said.

The bill’s provisions were included in the bipartisan education package passed by the Legislature and vetoed by Dunleavy. When the Legislature failed to override Dunleavy’s veto, backers said that they were concerned schools would have to wait another year to upgrade internet service. 

Schools must submit their applications for the next round of funding no later than midnight Eastern Time on March 27, according to the company that administers the program. But lawmakers moved quickly to pass the broadband bill, with the House working well into the night last week to ensure its passage. 

In a statement on social media, Dunleavy acknowledged the need to act fast, saying “it is my intent to have it become law before those deadlines arrive.”

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, proposed an amendment that he said would explicitly allow schools to purchase high-speed satellite internet, like SpaceX’s Starlink. Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said some rural schools had recently switched to space-based broadband and saved roughly 90% on their internet bills.

Though the amendment failed, Hoffman said that he did not believe the bill as written would bar districts from selecting whatever service worked best for them.

The Federal Communications Commission lists satellite internet as an eligible service for the E-Rate program, along with more traditional connections like fiber-optic and cable service.

The bill passed 18-1 with only Shower voting no.

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