When Ed Cushing started in the telephone business 45 years ago Sitkans still had 5-party lines. “Who knows what a party line is anymore? How would you like to share your cell phone now with your teenage daughter — and four of her friends?”

As Sitka and other Alaskan communities try and figure out how to manage declining state revenues and to pay for basic services, telecommunications are steadily improving.

According to Ed Cushing, with the Alaska Telephone Association, that’s because someone else is paying for them.

The ATA held its 67th annual meeting in Sitka this week (May 22-24) and Cushing, the organization’s president, addressed the local chamber.

Although he described himself as a conservative, in the following excerpt he says Alaska’s good phone service is based on social policy.

Something very important happened in this country 40 years ago, or so, and it’s called social policy. And the social policy, in essence, became one of recognition that it order for this country to best succeed, in order for the whole to be better than the sum of its parts, everyone in the country not only needed affordable electricity, they needed affordable telecommunication. That in fact food, and other basic necessities of life, that make life in cities possible, don’t come from cities do they? They come from the hinterlands. And unless we have a successful rural economy, we won’t have a successful national economy. But therein lay the problem: The operation, construction, and maintenance of these local telephone systems is extremely expensive. So whether it was dial-tone then, or broadband today, it’s millions and millions of dollars to build, operate, maintain, and ultimately replace these systems, and to employ the people who do all that. And whether it’s Sitka, Ketchikan, Galena — pick your town — there aren’t enough people in any of our communities to support these systems.

Cushing said that surcharges on telephone customers across the country support Alaskan phone systems, to the tune of over $300 million a year — at least half of that going to schools, libraries, and health clinics, and the rest going directly to subsidies for local phone companies. In 2016, the Alaska Telephone Association advocated for an agreement with the FCC called “The Alaska Plan,” in which the federal government would spend $1.5 billion over 10 years to expand broadband service to remote Alaskan communities.

But Cushing’s historical perspective on telecommunications goes back much further than the internet. Family members in Anchorage and Sitka helped found the Alaska Telephone Association 67 years ago, when the goal was simply to get phones into the roughly 200 Alaskan towns and villages that had none.

And it’s always so interesting to me reflect back on 1949-1950 when my dad and my aunt were just getting this association rolling. At that time their focus was, we need an association, we have these problems relative to costs and revenue — and we had a larger problem, which is Sitka is one of the few towns in the state with a telephone system. Beyond the cost of long distance in ‘49 it was hardly available. There was one trunk to the outside world. One person could make a call. I can recall many years later (I was about this big) holding my dad’s hand walking down to the ACS office while he picked up telegrams. Because most of the business was done by telegrams or by mail. The big event every day was walking down to the post office and getting the mail. And it was a golden time to live because all problems — well 93-percent of problems — were solved one way: Oh, I’m sorry to hear you have a problem, why don’t you send me a letter? Well, 76-percent of people would never send a letter. 83-percent of the letters sent would never arrive. And the rest of it, by the time the letter actually got there the problem had solved itself, right? So life was good.

Although his roots are in Sitka, Cushing now works for Ketchikan Public Utilities, which extended its fiber optic network to most households, and created a 4G LTE wireless network with download speeds comparable to urban markets in the lower 48. Telecom giant Verizon, which has about one-third of the country’s cell phone customers, struck the deal with KPU that made the service expansion possible.

Asked by a chamber member how Sitka might get a similar telecommunications boost, Cushing replied, “All you need is another 850,000 cruise ship passengers and you’re there.”