Guest Blog Post by Anne Neville, Director, State Broadband Initiative, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Last week, I traveled to Anchorage for the annual economic summit hosted by the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, a non-profit regional economic development organization. The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference is working to improve the quality of life and drive responsible development across the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, the Kodiak Archipelago and the Pribilof Islands.
Last week’s summit had a packed agenda, covering everything from energy conservation to sustainable fishing practices. One big topic of conversation was broadband and the power of high-speed Internet to open up economic, educational and social opportunities in some of the poorest, most isolated communities in our nation.
It’s no wonder that the Alaska state nickname is “The Last Frontier.” The state is more than double the size of Texas, with more than 3 million lakes, 34,000 miles of shoreline, and 29,000 square miles of ice fields. But with fewer than 750,000 residents, Alaska includes some of the most remote, sparsely populated pockets of the U.S. Many Alaska Natives reside in tiny villages with just a few hundred people and lead subsistence lifestyles.
Broadband offers these communities a way to connect with the wider world and access everything from online classes to healthcare services to job opportunities. It also offers Alaska Natives a way to preserve their indigenous culture for future generations and share it with a global audience.
At the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, we see first-hand evidence of this through our investments in several Alaska broadband projects:
With funding from NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska State Library established public computer centers at 97 public libraries across the state. The federal investment helped pay for computers and terrestrial and satellite Internet connections, as well as an innovative videoconferencing network. It also helped pay for digital literacy training to help local residents take advantage of everything from electronic commerce and e-government services to online job interviews and distance education offerings.
The Online with Libraries – or Alaska OWL – project is using the new videoconferencing capability in all sorts of creative ways. The Juneau Library organized a virtual field trip for local children to see dinosaurs on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, Canada. The Unalaska City Library hosted a session for students in a local high school carpentry class to learn about a union apprenticeship program from the training coordinator for the Anchorage-based Local 367 of the United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. And libraries in Craig, Haines and Kenai have used the system to facilitate an interactive Shakespeare “Reader’s Theater,” with patrons at each of the libraries taking turns reading play passages.