Better internet on the way: Let the Interior’s free market beef-up broadband services

News-Miner opinion: Rep. David Guttenberg has proposed both a co-op similar to Golden Valley Electric Association or a municipal-operated utility to provide and extend internet service in the Interior. But are these proposals the best approach to improving internet availability?

Reliable broadband internet, or high speed internet delivered by coaxial or fiber-optic cable, can be found in and around Fairbanks and North Pole, but residents in outlying communities such as Goldstream and Pleasant Valley are frustrated with the quality, price or lack of internet service.

The old adage “so close, yet so far” comes to mind.

In perfect timing to highlight many Interior residents’ frustrations, Quintillion turned on its fiber-optic cable network Friday, bringing broadband to Nome, Wainwright, Point Hope, Kotzebue, Prudhoe Bay, and Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow. Communities far more remote than Pleasant Valley now have state of the art broadband technology available. Quintillion’s terrestrial cable runs right through Fairbanks but does not connect to outlying communities in the Interior.

So what about a borough-operated internet utility?

The Fairbanks North Star Borough has been hit by the statewide recession. Just last month, Mayor Karl Kassel said the borough cannot even afford to maintain the buildings it owns. The borough is in no position to add more government.

Adding an internet utility is not feasible in the foreseeable future.

Guttenberg hosted a broadband internet forum Saturday at the University of Alaska Fairbanks to addres this issue. GVEA Vice President John Burns was in attendance. He expressed interest in a co-op partnership.

But he also listed associated challenges such as high construction costs, legal complications and the absence of a federal grant that made a similar co-op in Missouri successful.

How long would it take for a co-op to begin operating? Or would it be best to rely on the established industry and the free market to develop better products and offer better prices?

Next year, Alaska Communications will begin building infrastructure to bring broadband to more people in the region’s outlying areas using a Connect America grant from the Federal Communications Commission. Two Rivers, Pleasant Valley, Salcha, Moose Creek, Steele Creek, Fox, Chena Ridge, Ester, Goldstream and beyond are expected to have broadband availability by 2025.

Heather Cavanaugh, an Alaska Communications spokeswoman, said this project would add about 12,000 potential broadband customers, including those with no internet capability and current internet customers without broadband capabilities.

GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said the company’s broadband internet is available to 37,000 of the 41,557 homes in the borough.

Ms.

Cavanaugh agreed the internet in Alaska is expensive compared with Outside. Alaska’s vast geography and sparse populations make the cost of delivery higher. Alaska Communications offers broadband internet with unlimited data for £79.99 per month.

GCI offers plans ranging from £64.99 for 50GB of data per month to £174.99 for unlimited data every month.

By comparison, Frontier Communications, which offers broadband in many states Outside, offers high speed internet for £19.99 per month for first-year customers, who then are given a static rate of £34.99 per month in the second year.

Additional supply, increased competition and new technology are likely to lower prices.

A municipal utility is not the best use of resources in this cash-strapped fiscal climate.

The possibility of an internet co-op is likely years away, and success may be elusive. Let the free market do its job. It may take a couple years for internet options to improve, but bringing new technology that requires new infrastructure to the nation’s farthest-north metropolitan area cannot be accomplished overnight.

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