Yakutat, an off-the-grid town, is getting online in a hurry

CTC to build broadband network with $18.89M USDA grant

The town of Yakutat doesn’t have very good internet. In schools, only a handful of students can get online at once. In stores, customers struggle to pay using credit card terminals that repeatedly crash. Nonetheless, it appears Yakutat is poised to leapfrog Cordova, becoming the most connected town in the region.

The New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat, or NICEY, project is poised to deliver broadband internet to every business and residence in the community. Cordova Telecom Cooperative was awarded an $18,888,668 grant from the Department of Agriculture to accomplish the project.

“This internet and broadband you’re talking about — I’m not really familiar with that, because I live in Yakutat,” joked Jon Erickson, city and borough manager for Yakutat. “But what is really cool is that this is an Alaska company, based out of Cordova, and one of our neighbors, that’s getting this grant. That just overwhelms us. I am grateful.”

The NICEY project will connect Yakutat to Cordova’s submarine fiber optics via a new 230-mile chain of microwave towers. Installing the network will be challenging, involving construction at five remote sites, said Jeremiah Beckett, CEO of CTC. The microwave network will be highly redundant, so that a failed piece of equipment will not cause Yakutat to lose network access. This will allow equipment problems that emerge during the winter to be fixed later, during more hospitable months.

“In Alaska, it’s about connecting locations, not necessarily about the distribution when you get there,” Beckett said.

Jeremiah Beckett, CEO of Cordova Telecom Cooperative, announces a project to bring high-speed internet to Yakutat. (Dec. 3, 2019) Image by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Jeremiah Beckett, CEO of Cordova Telecom Cooperative, announces a project to bring high-speed internet to Yakutat. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Roughly half of the NICEY project’s cost will go toward connecting Yakutat to the Cordova network, while half will go toward deploying around 17 miles of fiber and conduit within Yakutat, Beckett said.

The new network is planned to go live by fall 2021, initially delivering connectivity at 2.6 gigabytes per second. By comparison, Cordova, which is roughly three times as populous as Yakutat, consumes slightly over 1 gigabyte per second during peak hours, Beckett said. The NICEY project will additionally distribute free routers and modems to all businesses and residences in Yakutat.

The chain of microwave towers linking Cordova and Yakutat will also extend coverage along the coast. This will allow safety improvements for aviators, lodges, Coast Guard vessels and others operating in the area, Beckett said.

All in all, the project will invest $25,184,891 in extending coverage to Yakutat. The project is expected to increase CTC’s total asset value by 50 percent over two years, Beckett said.

CTC received its grant funding via the USDA’s ReConnect Program, which supports establishing and improving networks in areas with insufficient internet access. The ReConnect Program prioritizes rural areas; areas with farms, businesses, healthcare and education facilities; and Tribal land areas, according to a USDA information sheet.

The ReConnect Program was established in March 2018, catching CTC’s notice almost immediately. CTC spent three months strengthening its application with technical feasibility studies and letters of support from Yakutat stakeholders, Beckett said. While visiting Yakutat, Beckett encountered the town’s sluggish school computers and unreliable credit card terminals, further convincing him of the project’s necessity, he said.

Jerry Ward, the Department of Agriculture state director of rural development for Alaska. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Jerry Ward, the Department of Agriculture state director of rural development for Alaska. (Dec. 3, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Greater internet access will improve educational opportunities for Alaska children and better equip them to compete in the global economy, said Jerry Ward, the USDA state director of rural development for Alaska.

“The next phase in our country’s development is broadband, and that’s what’s going to make the difference,” Ward said. “Once we have rural America connected and rural Alaska connected, that’s when we come into the proper form of the future that is needed… I hope this is just the beginning of many other communities that this administration is able to help bring into this.”

USDA General Field Representative Shekinah Bailey, who attended CTC’s Tuesday, Dec. 3 event announcing the project, said that the community has a responsibility to take full advantage of the economic and educational opportunities afforded by faster and more reliable internet. The new network will allow Yakutat residents not only to shop online and to consult doctors remotely, but to cultivate skills in emerging fields like web design.

“You now have a great resource, and it’s not just Netflix and cat videos,” Bailey said. “There’s a responsibility for the community to make sure that this is a successful project… That’s one of the things we’re going to continue to work on: how do we make sure the community is taking full advantage of this resource?”