September 5, 2014 - 12:49 pm
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Fulfilling a commitment I made last year to its congressional delegation, I spent a portion of August traveling throughout Alaska.  I wish to sincerely thank Congressman Young and Senators Murkowski and Begich and their respective staffs for sharing their state with my staff and me.   

Over eight days, I met with many Alaskan communications providers, state and local officials and tribal organizations, and visited several rural health care clinics and schools.  Most importantly, I was able to talk with Alaskans about their communications experiences and future needs, including at community discussions hosted at Old Harbor, Pilot Point and the Bristol Bay Native Association.  From this experience, I came away with a number of valuable lessons learned that I will keep with me in my current role at the FCC.    

Alaska is Different – From my previous visits to the state, I readily acknowledged that Alaska is unique compared to the “lower 48” states.  Seeing it again, however, reminded me not only of its immense size, but also of its uncompromising terrain.  Vast mountains and rivers slice the state into pieces, leaving its many communities and villages isolated and without the transportation options we take for granted in the contiguous states.  I flew for hours over the southwestern portion of the state without spotting a single road.  That means supplies must be shipped in by airplanes, helicopters, boats, or barges, and these services may be available only by charter making deliveries both infrequent and expensive.  And then there are the weather challenges.  For up to nine months out of a year, Alaskans can experience what reminds me of some of the worst weather days in my hometown of Buffalo, resulting in substantially shortened construction and repair seasons.  These factors, combined with a population distribution heavily skewed towards Anchorage, make serving the sparsely populated rural and isolated areas very complicated.             

Rural Health Care Technology Triage – Alaska is a pioneer when it comes to the adoption and use of communications technology to deliver health care services, especially in the more remote areas where transportation is costly.  Alaska’s health care providers in these  remote areas integrate what I refer to as “technology triage” to diagnose and treat patients.  Instead of traditional in-person doctor-patient visits, community health aides use medical carts (“AFHCAN carts”) that utilize the telecom portion of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program to “store and forward” health information to doctors located many miles away.  For more complex cases or situations, such as behavioral services, they can use more bandwidth-intensive video teleconferencing services.  And when absolutely necessary, patients are transported to regional hospitals, or to Anchorage or Seattle.  This system was prominently displayed, for example, in the Bristol Bay region.  I spoke with community health aides in village clinics in Manokotak and Pilot Point, doctors and nurses in the regional Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, and specialists in Anchorage.  By using technology effectively, providers in Alaska are able to diagnose symptoms and problems early, and treat minor ailments locally, thereby minimizing expensive and unnecessary health care services and transportation. 

Schools Need Connectivity Not Wi-Fi – My visit reaffirmed the serious concerns that have been expressed with shifting the E-Rate program’s attention from basic connectivity to Wi-Fi.  I outlined some fundamental problems with this new approach during our recent E-Rate modernization effort and similar concerns were echoed by school officials in Alaska that are using the E-Rate program on a daily basis.  From Dillingham to Manokotak to Pilot Point, I heard about the current state of school networks.  In each instance, the issue wasn’t Wi-Fi, but rather bandwidth to the schools.  Each school had recently invested heavily to upgrade their Wi-Fi systems, but still faced connectivity challenges.  Schools had to conserve limited bandwidth (i.e., prohibit certain educational uses) to ensure that there would be sufficient capacity for other activities, such as online testing.  The schools’ and providers’ experiences with E-Rate were generally positive, but they are worried that potential changes could threaten its viability. 

Extensive Use of Distance Learning – I was impressed with the innovative approach to distance learning employed by the Lake and Peninsula School District in southwest Alaska.  Schools with only a handful of students, teachers and school administrators are joining forces to educate students using a combination of satellite Internet access, smart boards, video conferencing, and video mentoring programs.  In essence, teachers in one classroom are teaching students in multiple schools dotted throughout an entire region.  Correspondingly, students are being taught subjects by teachers they may never meet in person.  This allows schools to provide educational opportunities that would not be otherwise available or affordable.  This practice may be helpful in serving other very remote, low population areas in the U.S.         

Subsidies Have Distorted the Alaskan Marketplace – My conversations with providers in the state highlighted the number of Federal programs and the influence of these programs on Alaskan communications.  Over the years, a number of providers received funding from various programs with the intention of extending or improving service within the state.  From programs at the Departments of Agriculture or Commerce to the FCC, some providers haven’t been shy in seeking funding, which seemingly was well intentioned.  The problem, however, is that most of this funding, whether it came in the form of grants, loans, or subsidies, has had an impact on other providers in Alaska.  Helping certain providers has disadvantaged other providers.  In retrospect, broadband deployment challenges should have been examined holistically, and there should have been better coordination amongst the programs to understand the collective impact of Federal funding on private investment and service throughout Alaska.  The FCC should be mindful of this going forward and, as it reforms and implements its own programs, it should assess both the individual and additive impact of its actions on the competitive environment.

This was my first extensive trip as a Commissioner, and I appreciated the opportunity to see the wonders of Alaska and meet some of its amazing people.  Hopefully, seeing the state firsthand, as I know my colleagues have, will allow the Commission to develop more targeted, coordinated, and thoughtful policies going forward.