Yakutat’s welcome sign, pictured here in 2017. The town has long struggled with slow internet and spotty cellphone reception. (KCAW/Kwong)

Slow internet and spotty cell phone service are common problems for small communities throughout Alaska, and Yakutat is no exception. The lack of connectivity has made it harder for the town to attract businesses, invest in telemedicine, and develop distance education services. Now, thanks to a federal grant, the whole town is getting an upgrade.

Update, September 2, 2022

The Forest Service issued the following news release today:

“In July (2022), the Tongass Forest Supervisor authorized the issuance of a special use permit for the installation, operation, and maintenance of about 8,251 feet (1.56 miles) of fiber optic cable that will cross National Forest System lands in two locations within the Cannon Beach and Lost River Road rights-of-way near Yakutat, Alaska. This section of fiber optic cable is part of a larger effort to provide high-speed internet services to the community of Yakutat. 

Construction of the entire project is expected to take about 1 year with implementation beginning this summer. Installation of the cable crossing NFS lands should take less than 1 month once initiated.

To see maps and more about the project, visit the Fiber Optic Cable on YRD project webpage. For additional information concerning the project and decision, please contact Lee Benson, Yakutat District Ranger at lee.benson@usda.gov.”

Original Report

The project is called NICEY — that’s an acronym for New Internet Communications for Everyone in Yakutat. The goal is to do just that — connect the town to better internet and cell phone service. 

To fund the project, the Cordova Telecom Cooperative secured an $18.9 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture through the Broadband ReConnect Program, which aims to boost connectivity in rural parts of the country.

Cordova Telecom is one of 15 applicants around the country awarded the funding. 

Jerry Ward, the USDA Rural Development Director for Alaska, says the state is in a great position to benefit from ReConnect, precisely because so many communities are stuck with outdated communication infrastructure. 

“Alaska actually ranked higher than any of the other states in this particular project, because we have so many communities that don’t have adequate broadband, they don’t even have broadband,” Ward said. 

Cordova Telecom will construct a series of towers along 230 miles of remote coastline, relaying broadband service through the air between Yakutat and the submarine fiber optics cable in Cordova.

The overall cost of the project is about $25 million. 

CEO Jeremiah Beckett says the grant is a boon for the region. 

“We’re really honored to receive the grant from the USDA. We think it’s a big win for Alaska, Cordova, and especially the community of Yakutat,” Beckett said. “So we’re excited to start this process and journey with them.”  

Yakutat is home to a little over 600 people. Nathan Moulton, Executive Director of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, says the current internet situation poses a number of challenges. For example, he’s spoken with people who would like to move to Yakutat and work remotely, but can’t do so because the internet is too slow. 

Moulton says the promise of high speed broadband is a big deal. 

“This is gonna be obviously exponentially better than what we currently have now,” Moulton said. “Gonna decrease costs over time, gonna increase opportunities. It’s just a wonderful thing to have happen.” 

He says better internet and cell phone service will bring a host of benefits to schools and businesses. More reliable connectivity could also open up telemedicine opportunities. 

“Often times in the village we don’t have a really good behavior health, or access to a psychiatrist. So it’s gonna offer a ton of new services on health care,” he said.

But residents are going to have to live with slow internet for a little bit longer. The project is slated to come online in the fall of 2021.