Frontiers Header- Alaska from space. Fall Issue 111

Headline- Broadband Comes to SW Alaska: BLM Permits Make a Difference. Installation of remote repeater on BLM-administered lands at Cone Mountain.
Installation of remote repeater on BLM-administered lands at Cone Mountain, north of Goodnews Bay. Photo by Steve Fusilier.

  When you look at a current map of Alaska showing broadband internet services, you’ll notice something is missing—broadband in much of rural Alaska. For about 750 households and 9,000 residents in 65 Southwest Alaska communities, that is about to change. When the Terrestrial for Every Region of Rural Alaska or TERRA-Southwest, fiber optic and microwave network project is completed in early 2012, much of Southwest Alaska won’t have to rely solely on satellite communications with limited bandwidth and high costs. The project is two years ahead of schedule in part due to accelerated processing of the land use permits and rights-of-way from the BLM Anchorage Field Office.

 

Funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the TERRA-Southwest project has the potential to improve the local communications infrastructure, create jobs, and build the local economy. Better connectivity can make a difference for classrooms, search and rescue, law enforcement, emergency management or rural businesses. 

 Helicopter transporting material to Muklung Hill. Photo courtesy of United Utilities, Inc. and GCI
Helicopter transporting material to Muklung Hill. Photo courtesy of United Utilities, Inc. and GCI

“TERRA-Southwest is a historic project. It has great importance to our health corporation and our region,” says Gene Peltola of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. Healthcare in the region can’t help but change with broadband. Telemedicine technologies, including digital imaging and videoconferencing, can allow consultations with doctors and other medical specialties beyond the village, and improve distance diagnosis and treatment.

Better connectivity will benefit the BLM’s management of approximately 1.5 million acres of public lands it manages in Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Goodnews Bay regions.
When acting Anchorage District Manager Jim Fincher attended the TERRA-Southwest ribbon-cutting ceremony in Dillingham last August, he was thanked by the CEOs of Kanakanak Hospital and General Communications Inc. (GCI) for facilitating the required permits and rights-of-way. Fincher acknowledges processing normally takes significant time and resources. Once in a while, a project comes along so critical to local communities that it merits extra effort, time and resources by all involved. “This project is a great example of BLM partnering with industry, communities and other agencies to complete a project that is very relevant to local residents,” Fincher says. It also underscores the importance of BLM’s permitting work.

The TERRA-Southwest project is nearly complete, despite the massive technical challenges involved in an area without a road system and with Alaska’s climate and geological realities. The BLM Anchorage District worked with other agencies to complete the environmental assessment for the proposed rights-of-way and permits. That analysis concluded the immense benefit to communities far outweighed any negligible impacts to federal lands and resources.

Last summer, United Utilities, Inc. (a subsidiary of GCI) used heavy-lift helicopters to deliver communications and power modules to mountaintop microwave-repeater sites, including BLM’s remote Cone Mountain and Muklung Hills.

Map of project area from environmental assessment. Courtesty of Travis/Peterson Environmental Consulting

Map of project area from environmental assessment. Courtesty of Travis/Peterson Environmental Consulting

Beyond BLM-managed public lands, new fiber-optic cable lies at the bottom of Cook Inlet between Homer and Williamsport, Kachemak Bay and Illiamna Bay. A pole-hung fiber optic segment is in the mountain pass between Williamsport and Pile Bay. Village microwave towers are nearly complete in Levelock, New Stuyahok, Koliganek, Ekwok, Naknek, Dillingham, Manokatak, Goodnews Bay and Platinum.

The BLM Anchorage District Office is now moving forward for its part of the environmental analysis of a TERRA-Northwest project that will provide broadband connectivity to villages in the Unalakleet area, and eventually to Nome and surrounding villages.

The TERRA projects are great examples of the ways public lands enhance the quality of life in communities across Alaska and the Nation. For those 9,000 residents, it isn’t the project, but the results that are going to change life in Southwest Alaska.

— Teresa McPherson, 
Anchorage Field Office
tmcphers@blm.gov