Nushagak Cooperative’s fiber project inching towards faster internet

Almost all of Bristol Bay does not have high speed broadband internet access. According to the norms established by the federal government Broadband Equity, Access and Development Program, communities here are underserved or underserved, and that can affect the way communities operate. In Dillingham, for example, the council offices do not have sufficient internet access through the local utility to host certain cloud software. Instead, the city has to budget for additional hardware. Even if the city had enough gigabytes each month, it would be faced with a sometimes slow and spotty connection.

The Nushagak Cooperative, the local utility, is a major Internet provider in the region. CEO Will Chaney said reliable internet is especially important for rural Alaska.

“Our physical separation really shines a light on the need for that lasting broadband connection,” he said. “and fiber [is] something the cooperative recognizes is the gold standard for broadband delivery.”

Since 2021, the Nushagak Cooperative has been working to develop a fiber optic network for the region, which would provide fast and unlimited internet service. Originally, he had planned to complete a route from Levelock to Dillingham by this April. The cooperative houses its fiber cables in Levelock and would run approximately 100 miles of cable. The cooperative was working through a USDA grant that required it to contribute $5.7 million to the project out of a budgeted $22.4 million. But the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021 introduced a new funding source and changed the project’s timeline. The cooperative now plans to finish laying the cables in the fall of 2024.

“Where [it] turned around was Curyung Tribe and Choggiung Ltd. realized they had access to a higher level of funding but did not require a match. And they approached the cooperative with the offer initially,” Chaney said.

In 2021, Dillingham village corporation Choggiung Ltd. and the Curyung tribe applied for a tribal broadband grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Choggiung Ltd. CFO Breyden Shiflea said they saw an opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership.

“What that meant was that essentially Nushagak members, many of whom were also Choggiung shareholders, could get the benefit of high-speed, reliable broadband internet without having a lot of cost increases to do so.” he said.

It took almost a year to secure the funding, according to Shiflea, and they officially received the grant last October. The Curyung tribe did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.

This type of development impacts the environment. Similar projects in northern Alaska have affected permafrost levels. In 2018, a subsidiary of GCI Liberty and Quintillion Networks contributed to the thawing of the permafrost through fiber optic cable projects, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Chaney said the Nushagak Cooperative has worked with surrounding communities to complete environmental studies and obtain building permits. The proposed Nushagak route and Levelock to Dillingham easement are open to public comment until mid June.

Levelock Natives Ltd. is another local partner in the project. In a written statement, General Manager Tiara Turner said the initiative “opens up more opportunities to advance education, expansion and infrastructure.”

Turner also said the corporation was “excited about the improvements and benefits this project will bring to [their] stockholders and residents living in rural Alaska.”

Once the fiber is laid, the cables will be connected to the GCI proposal Airraq Networka $42 million dollar fiber project funded by the same grant as Nushagak.

Nushagak’s internet rates are currently more than double the national average. Chaney, the cooperative’s chief executive, said the fiber network will reduce maintenance costs. But internet rates will remain the same, at least initially.

“As the broadband of our fiber network is developed and put into use as it matures, we expect to see savings in the cost of operation and that could lead to lower prices,” he said.

The cooperative also faces competition from Space X’s Starlink. Dozens of its accounts have closed in recent months. Starlink offers unlimited Internet via low-flying satellites, at about half the price of Nushagak. The company charges a one-time fee of $600 and the client’s installation and repair services are remote.

As for the city of Dillingham, it plans to add a Starlink dish to make use of both internet providers, a more stable option, at least for now.

Contact the author at [email protected] or 907-842-2200.