Most Alaska Native villages are at the very bottom of the "Digital Divide". Cities like Anchorage and Juneau have Internet speeds of 100 Mbps as the norm, and can get even faster speeds. Meanwhile, Alaska Native villages are stuck with advertised "Fast Internet" speeds of 6 Mbps and are paying more for that than city folks are paying for their 100 Mbps. Many villagers can only get speeds of 1 or 2 Mbps, and some subscribe to plans offering only 512 Kbps. Alaska Tribal Broadband (ATB) was formed with a single focus of helping Alaska tribes cross over to the other side of the Digital Divide.
ATB’s senior management brings combined experiences of telecommunications, tribal leadership, and executive positions in business and government to their shared commitment to improve broadband service for Alaska Natives. ATB’s founder and president, Harold Johnston, is a native Hawaiian raised in a Hawaii tribal community. He has run domestic and international operations for AT&T and Verizon, and a rural native-owned telephone company. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds an MBA from San Jose State University.
Craig Fleener, ATB’s CEO, is an Alaska Native from Fort Yukon. He has extensive experience in Alaska state government. From 2014 to 2018, he served in the Office of the Governor as Senior Advisor on Arctic Policy, and represented the governor and the State of Alaska in Washington DC as Director of State and Federal Relations. Prior to being a senior member of the governor's staff, he was the State’s Deputy Director of Fish and Wildlife. Fleener has a long history of representing Alaska's interests in oceanic and Arctic opportunities and environment protection. He has held executive positions and continues to serve on a number of boards of organizations addressing ocean and Arctic protection and opportunity. He holds a BS Degree in Natural Resources Management from the University of Alaska and Masters Degrees from American Military University in Intelligence Studies, and from the University of Calgary in its Resources and Environment Program.
Both Johnston and Fleener have served in tribal leadership roles and as military officers. Johnston was a Marine infantry company commander in Viet Nam. Fleener was also a Marine and is now a Lt. Col. in the Alaska Air National Guard. These 2 leaders are building a team of experienced telecommunications professionals committed to improving tribal broadband.
Over the past 14 months, ATB was at the forefront in educating Alaska tribes about an exceptional opportunity to improve broadband on their lands. The FCC is giving the nation’s federally recognized tribes a license for a prime 5G-technology wireless spectrum for free. This spectrum, the 2.5 GHz frequency band, gives tribes a powerful wireless broadband asset. Tribes had to apply for the license by the September 2nd deadline. ATB president, Harold Johnston, says that with the pandemic issues, there was great concern that our tribes were not going to make the deadline. Only a handful of Alaska’s 229 tribes had applied with less than 60 days to go. Thanks to great support from some good people and organizations, Alaska came through in a big way, as can be seen by the green shading in the picture above. Over 85% of Alaska tribes will receive the license.
ATB wishes to acknowledge the tremendous help Alaska tribes received from our Congressional Delegation, the State of Alaska, and the Denali Commission.
Three nonprofits – Alaska Tribal Spectrum, Tribal-25, and MuralNet - stepped up to help Alaska tribes file the license. ATB is proud of its technical support role in helping over 60 Alaska tribes submit their license application.
Johnston says that getting the license opens the door, but that tribes now need to put the license to use. “Tribes need to develop a broadband plan for deploying this special broadband frequency spectrum to serve their villages. There is considerable federal funding available to help tribes plan and implement the necessary broadband infrastructure.”, he adds.
Alaska tribes win 5 of 25 national BIA grants
On August 13, the Trump Administration and the Bureau of Indian affairs announced the award of 25 Broadband Planning Grants to tribes across the country, including 5 in Alaska. ATB congratulates all successful applicants for these competitive Broadband Planning Grants.
ATB is proud of the 4 Alaska grant recipients it helped to prepare their applications:
- Native Village of Barrow
- Igiugig Village
- Noorvik Native Village
- Native Village of Unalakleet
Congratulations also to Metlakatla Indian Community, the other Alaska winner.
Broadband planning grants like these allow tribes to utilize the telecommunications expertise of companies like ATB to help them define their broadband requirements and develop the best solution alternatives.
ATB says that the 2.5 GHz frequency license that the tribes will own is a game changer. For the very first time, tribes will own a major broadband asset. ATB is designing and engineering broadband solutions that will utilize the tribal-owned 2.5 GHz frequency in the critical last mile portion of the network. The company will also work with existing service providers to explore alternatives to upgrade the middle mile, which provides the link between the “last mile” network and distant information sources like Internet hubs.
“What the Broadband Plan does for a tribe,” says ATB’s Johnston, “ is to provide a comprehensive plan that includes a network design and the budget for the installed costs of equipment and infrastructure, along with cost budgets to operate and maintain the tribal portion of the broadband network.” He says that the Broadband Plan will position tribes to then apply for grant funding that is currently available to help tribes implement the broadband plan that will provide the service levels they need. ATB is excited about the available solutions that will have a big impact on improving broadband service
ATB Support for Tribal Broadband Buildout – Federal Funding Available for Alaska Tribes
Tribal leaders are aware that in addition to ongoing Federal support programs, the CARES Act has made over $10 billion available to Federally recognized tribes across the country. Congress intended that the funding be made available for solutions that will both provide economic stimulus and combat COVID-19 and future pandemics.
Broadband projects, including planning, technical assistance, and infrastructure deployment are eligible for Federal grants under the CARES Act.
Like the free spectrum license under the Tribal Priority Window, this is another “once-in-a lifetime opportunity” for tribes to receive significant broadband assets at no cost. In this case, tribes have an opportunity to deploy broadband infrastructure at no cost. Infrastructure worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per village can be funded by grants under the CARES Act. As with the free 2.5 GHz license , this opportunity is also time sensitive. The funding is intended as emergency pandemic response, and much of it needs to be spent by the end of 2021.
Tribes have a unique opportunity for the first time to actually own significant broadband infrastructure and determine their own broadband service priorities. ATB is working with a number of tribes to develop the broadband plans to get those tribes shovel ready.
Support is available to tribes for the infrastructure deployment and operations phases. ATB president Johnston says that he is excited about the available solutions that can have a big impact on improving tribal broadband. He believes that despite the current poor state of broadband, tribes themselves hold the key to much of their own broadband destiny. "Our tribes did great in going after the 2.5 GHz license. Now it's time to get ready to put this powerful broadband asset they own to work.", he says.