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Alaska Journal of Commerce: Organization works to prepare Southwest businesses for broadband

Broadband connectivity is coming to Southwest Alaska, and a local economic development organization wants to make sure businesses are ready to take advantage of it.

Current internet connectivity in most Southwest villages is slow and cumbersome, with satellite connections that tend to be sluggish and unreliable.

The Southwest Alaska Broadband Consortium has only had one meeting since its formation about a year ago, and the turnout wasn’t substantial. However, officials with the Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, who started the consortium, are excited about the future, noting that outreach efforts are under way.

"At that meeting, we had five people attend. We’re trying to get more people across the region involved. We’re trying to get a good cross-section of different industries," said Katie Abbott, special projects coordinator with SWAMC.

Abbott will only be with SWAMC until next month as part of the AmeriCorps Vista program, which sends volunteers out on yearlong missions to help nonprofits engaged in harboring economic development and improving quality of life in impoverished areas.

"People are starting to get interested," she said. "It helps that we’ve had our first meeting."

Abbott said the consortium is reaching out to individual businesses, government entities and others who would benefit from membership.

Andy Varner, SWAMC’s executive director, said that as the summer fishing season winds down, he expects to see greater turnout at the meetings.

Ultimately, Varner hopes the consortium will have formulated a strategy to hand out to businesses and other interested parties, one that can be used as they figure out how to take advantage of high-speed Internet.

Of course, part of understanding the potential benefits of broadband access is understanding how the technology works and how to use it, and now that SWAMC has telecom provider General Communications Inc. on the consortium, it has a powerful ally that can provide that need.

GCI is also largely responsible for the broadband development that spurred the consortium in the first place. The TERRA-Southwest project, which came about thanks to an $88 million loan and grant combination received by a wholly owned subsidiary of GCI, will ultimately connect 65 communities in Bristol Bay and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the provider’s existing network.

Operating on both a fiber-optic line and a network of microwave towers, the project’s aim is to grant 9,089 households and 748 businesses broadband connectivity.

Krag Johnsen, director of rural broadband development with GCI, said one of his primary roles with the company is keeping communities informed as new broadband developments roll out. Johnsen was present at the consortium’s first meeting, and he plans to continue participating.

Johnsen said he is excited about the possibility that rural businesses will have access to the same Internet connectivity urban businesses do.

"Any ability to do work that can be performed in an urban area can be performed in any of these areas that we’re going to offer high-speed access," he said.

Johnsen said the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. is one of GCI’s biggest customers, and with expanded broadband capabilities comes enhanced telehealth usability.

Telehealth is a technology that allows doctors from outside of a community to speak via video chat to local health providers. Many rural villages utilize this service due to a lack of doctors living in the Bush.