Firm aims to bring Bush Alaska up to speed online

Firm aims to bring Bush Alaska up to speed online

By Margaret Bauman Alaska Journal of Commerce
Publication Date: 11/21/04

© The Alaska Journal of Commerce Online


Stanley Edwin installs a dish to be used for high-speed Internet access in Bethel. PHOTO/ Courtesy of Village Telecom Management Services

Two years ago Jim Stevens watched as an exasperated resident in a small Bering Sea village tried to download several lengthy government documents from the Internet.
The process took so long that the phone line was disconnected before the download was completed.

"Why can't a village get better access to the Internet?" he asked.
After some investigative efforts, Stevens found out the technology was certainly available, and he could deliver it.

Stevens formed Village Telecom Management Services LLC, and started presenting his proposal to rural Alaska communities. His firm formed Bethel Wireless, which is currently installing high-speed wireless services for private residences and businesses in Bethel. The cost to residential customers is $24.95 a month, he said.

Titan Technologies, the other partner in Bethel Wireless, is currently busy doing demonstrations for potential customers, he said.

Stevens is also talking with other rural entities, including tribal governments, about the advantages of owning and operating their own telecommunications company. An example is the village of Anvik, on the Lower Yukon River, where the Anvik Traditional Council plans to own and operate its own high-speed wireless services. Construction is to begin in January, he said.
A $280,310 grant from the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program will help the federally recognized tribal government foot the bill, Stevens said.

Through its contract with Village Telecom, the tribe will become the Internet and telecommunications services provider for all residents, businesses and institutions in the village. Violet Kruger, administrator for the Anvik council, said the new system would give the community real advantages.

"It's more outside information that the community could have access to," she said. Right now the only Internet access for this community of 105 people is at the council office or local school, she said.

Village Telecom is also bidding on a contract to service one sprawling western Alaska school system and plans a demonstration project for a major regional nonprofit Alaska Native corporation to show numerous uses of high-speed Internet, including a video component for distance delivery of specialized teaching services.

"Our idea is that instead of every village having an IT (Internet technology) person, we will provide maintenance," he said. "This will be a tribal enterprise, selling Internet service. We will provide support for three to five years, and then they can just take it over."

"Very little stands in the way of tribal governments who wish to assume control over the delivery of affordable, reliable services within their respective communities," Stevens said in an informational memo.

"We have found that the wireless Internet systems have evolved to the extent that speed, reliability and durability are not compromised by Alaska's harsh environment, and that satellite delivery of Internet access, through dynamic bandwidth allocation, has significantly reduced the operating costs to Internet service providers."

Tribal ownership of Internet service providers has four major advantages, he said. First, it eliminates state regulatory oversight, allowing for greater flexibility in sharing bandwidth between user groups. Second, the Federal Communications Commission has adopted initiatives to promote tribal ownership of telecommunications companies, including the elimination of regulatory barriers. Third, tribal bodies have greater access to grants for purchase and deployment of equipment. Fourth, the tribes can control content delivery to local users in a way that boosts economic and educational opportunities, and reduces exposure to deceptive, fraudulent or pornographic sites, he said.

Many predominantly Alaska Native villages have been paying thousands of dollars a month for Internet services for schools and health clinics. Most of the bill has been paid in the past through the universal service fund, distributed through the Universal Services Acceptances Corp., which is affiliated with the FCC, he said. Now that those federal funds are temporarily frozen for schools, rural school districts are out shopping for competitive proposals to fill the gap, he said.
Stevens grew up in Fairbanks, and has traveled extensively in rural Alaska. His father, Walter Stevens, had a degree in engineering and his mother, Betty Stevens, served as assistant superintendent for elementary education in Fairbanks public schools. The younger Stevens studied business at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and said his real knowledge of computers was confined to being an Internet user.

His most recent business venture, before telecommunications, was running an architectural and engineering firm which helped rural residents get contracts to build roads in their own communities. Two years ago, his employees bought him out and he began forming his latest firm, he said.

His latest venture sprang from what he saw as a need to improve rural economies. "If this can be done, why not do it?" he said.

"As the technology progresses, things become easier to use," Stevens said. "Wireless technology has advanced, and the cost and maintenance has come down."

Financing deployment of wireless systems has become attainable through the availability of federal and private grants, as well as lease-purchase options. Operating support from the Universal Service Fund assists locally owned Internet Service Providers to earn a profit, ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 a year, while still providing service to residential and commercial customers at affordable rates, he said. In fact, a tribally owned Internet Service Provider can provide better, faster Internet service than what is currently being offered for half the current rate structure, he said.