In a historic Bethel visit, first lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland push internet investment 2023

On Wednesday, First Lady Jill Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited Bethel, a rural area with limited internet connectivity, to showcase major government fiber broadband projects.

On Biden’s way to Japan’s G-7 conference, Haaland and the first lady stopped. Before his wife’s 400-mile excursion to Bethel, the president’s plane refueled in Anchorage.

Jill Biden visited the 6,000-person Western Alaska hamlet to promote the Biden administration’s infrastructure initiatives as the president prepares for another presidential bid.

The first lady was greeted by hundreds of cheering people at Bethel’s packed high school gymnasium despite chilly and windy weather.

She said that the region got over $100 million in federal broadband awards, drawing applause.

She claimed high-speed internet will improve access to crucial health care, new educational resources, and remote work prospects. It alters lives. Saves lives.”

She noted statewide spending had increased.

Industry observers say the Commerce and Agriculture departments have approved hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to improve broadband connectivity across Alaska over the past two years, partly with money from the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

That barely meets state needs. 200 Alaska villages lack high-speed internet, according to the Alaska Broadband Office. It expects nationwide fiber extension will cost around $2 billion.

Bethel, the gateway to hundreds of Yup’ik settlements reachable by small plane or boat, is one of Alaska’s few regional centres without high-speed fiber. Instead, microwave antennas on over 100 towers across mountains and tundra send internet signals.

Residents claim it’s excruciatingly sluggish, glitchy, and pricey, hurting economic development and access to services enjoyed by most of the nation. It’s hard to transmit medical documents or download movies, they claim.

As an illustration of the restricted coverage, Bethel municipal officials said the city last week lent a dozen disused mobile phones to secret service agents who came in town to prepare for the first lady’s arrival since their out-of-state phones wouldn’t function.

Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX owned by Elon Musk, is becoming more popular. They think it’s an economical option while they wait for broadband.

Residents lined the Chief Eddie Hoffman Highway to see Biden before her arrival. They waved. A path had two guys and a dog on a four-wheeler.

Biden spoke with Alaska Native leaders, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, who had met her at the airport. “Investing in Alaska” placards were held by Yup’ik immersion school dancers in fur-lined headdresses. “We love FLOTUS” and other homemade welcoming messages adorned the bleachers and walls.

Biden said that the Bethel Native Corp. and GCI received $73 million last year to deploy fiber cable to 10 towns and over 10,000 people by the end of next year.

Airraq Network is named after a local string game like cat’s cradle. Airraq means “string that tells the story” in Yup’ik, pronounced “i-huck.”

Biden told the gathering, “I love your name.”

Alaska Communications and Calista Corp., the regional Alaska Native company, obtained a $53 million grant last year to extend fiber to seven more Bethel towns.

Biden visited the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium two years ago during a layover in Alaska.

She said the experience drove the administration’s regional investments.

“I also learned about the challenges you face, and how communities in rural areas like this one often feel unseen and unappreciated for their unique contributions to our country,” Biden added. I took those stories home. I told Joe. He listened.

Local officials spoke about broadband issues before Biden. They also mentioned issues like declining salmon runs and a lack of running water and sewer in many areas, which is also receiving massive government funding under the infrastructure act. Many local houses use buckets instead of toilets.

Alaska First Lady Rose Dunleavy spoke. She predicted many employment from regional broadband initiatives.

“Until today, rural Alaska was on the wrong side of the digital divide,” she remarked.

Haaland, on her second official visit to Alaska as Interior Secretary, said those without modern internet services are robbed of possibilities. She stated regional projects are bringing a new age.

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