This is a four-part blog series about Alaska’s unique relationship with the E-Rate program.
There’s a reason why we call the rest of America “the lower 48” – Alaska is unique. The state’s expansive landscape is sparsely inhabited with much of its population spread out over small, remote communities, many of which have no roads and are only accessible by plane. This presents an interesting challenge for the education system. Alaska’s constitution requires a school facility for all communities with ten or more students. There are approximately 500 public schools in 53 districts and about 65% of these school districts are in urban areas, while the rest comprise the Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs).
Many of the schools in the REAA have less than 20 students. The vast geography and scale of Alaska has forced educators and community members to rely on technology to bridge the limited resources gap for teaching, learning, and information. In addition, the geographic landscape necessitates broadband to be delivered over satellite connectivity for many of our rural schools and libraries. While satellite technology continues to evolve, it is both expensive and limited in meeting the bandwidth needs of today’s global, mobile learning environments.
This is the fundamental difference between Alaska and the contiguous United States. Since E-Rate’s inception, funds have been used to build fiber broadband connections, as opposed to maintaining a baseline standard of service with satellite. A considerable investment would be required to get all of Alaska on fiber – an investment beyond what is provided by E-Rate and the potential lack of funding proposed in the overhaul. As private, public, and non-profit organizations work together to create a better E-Rate system for American education, they must realize that rural communities require enhanced E-Rate discounts in order to maintain adequate Internet access.
In the past few years, Alaska has been successful in building out microwave infrastructure throughout Southwest Alaska using funds via a grant/loan program administered by the Rural Utilities Services Broadband Improvement Program where 69 communities now have terrestrial Internet, not satellite. Telecommunications in Alaska has been slow to gain momentum with terrestrial infrastructure and we can’t afford to stop our progress now. As we continue to push broadband throughout rural Alaska into the Northwest, we will also need a reformed E-Rate system that factors in the unique challenges faced by Alaska.
How is your community uniquely affected by E-Rate? I would love to hear in the comments. You can also chat with me on Twitter at @plloyd.