With students statewide facing the possibility of online classes again this fall, improved internet connectivity is increasingly important.
Alaska has the slowest internet speed in the country, with an average of 20 megabits per second (Mbps) provided by companies across the state, according to highspeedinternet.com. Providers include Alaska Power & Telephone, which serves Skagway and almost 20 other communities around the state, ACS in Anchorage and the biggest statewide provider, GCI.
“Alaska is vast, with some areas being difficult to reach with telecommunications infrastructure,” said Bryant Smith, who works for broadband sales and quality for AP&T.
Rural communities have a smaller number of paying customers, making it economically difficult to offer the same type and speed of internet packages as in densely populated urban areas.
AP&T is currently offering internet packages and different types of hardship relief such as waiving data overage fees until June 30. For students or teachers who do not have internet access at home, they can qualify for the service at no cost. Those who already have service can get free upgrades.
ACS and GCI are providing similar help for students, teachers and health care workers.
The reality is “the free internet services provided by AP&T cannot continue long term, so families unable to afford internet access at their homes may be in a tough position unless funding sources surface,” Smith said.
The Skagway School District is contingency planning just in case, said Superintendent Dr. Josh Coughran. When COVID-19 hit, the school district provided a list to AP&T of families without internet access, and all the families were set up with internet service within a week.
Through it all, “AP&T has provided an amazing service. They’ve been an incredible community partner with the challenges facing COVID-19,” the superintendent said.
Coughran said the school district is working with state health officials and the Department of Education in determining whether Skagway classes will be held online or in person when the fall semester starts. The first day of class is now set for Aug. 20.
Some of the elements that will be taken into account in making the decision are risk factors, following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and determining which schools and communities are low and high risk.
Of the more than 730,000 residents of Alaska, almost one-third, or 258,000, live in a community with access to just one internet provider, according to broadbandnow.com. Of those 258,000, 148,000 don’t have access to a wired connection capable of a 25 Mbps download speed. The national download speed averages over 59 Mbps. Maryland has the fastest with a speed of about 84 Mbps.
AP&T maintains a Southeast Alaska microwave network that stretches 350 miles, along with a separate Lynn Canal fiber optic line that links Skagway, Haines and Juneau.
“We remain committed to looking for projects that bring the communities we serve closer to lower-cost internet transport options,” Smith said.