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Experts Outline Benefits of Boosting Arctic Broadband; But Some Cite Cultural 'Concern'

Tim Ellis/KUAC

Participants in the Arctic Broadband Forum held this week at the University of Alaska Fairbanks got an update on the progress of a project that promises to bring high-speed internet to remote northern Alaskan communities. And while residents of those towns and villages overwhelmingly support plans to bring broadband into the area, some worry about the flood of Western culture that will come with greater access to the internet.

The head of the company that just completed the first phase of a fiber-optic cable system that brought must-faster internet connectivity to Prudhoe Bay says if all goes well, the company, Quintillion, will extend that broadband to five other northern Alaska communities as early as November.

“These markets are demanding service – and desperate for this service,” says Quintillion CEO Elizabeth Pierce. She says the broadband that her Anchorage-based company will offer to the local internet service providers will improve the quality of life for the residents of Utqiagvik, the city formerly known as Barrow, as well as Wainwright, Point Hope, Kotzebue and Nome.

“With broadband, you get access to education,” Pierce said. “And with education, you get access to well-paying jobs.”

Broadband could also help generate economic activity in remote communities and offer young people an alternative to leaving the village for a job in the city, says Heather Hudson, an expert who’s studied the trend that has decimated the population of many indigenous communities in Canada, much as it has in Alaska.

“Unemployment is high – it’s very similar to Alaska,” she said. “The cost of living is also high – similar to Alaska. And the population is young; half the people in Nunavut are under 25.”

Hudson is an affiliate professor with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. She and others at the forum talked about how broadband would improve e-commerce, telemedicine and education. But some Alaska Natives and their indigenous counterparts in other Arctic nations worry about the downside of broadband.

“I just feel that high technology is good, y’know, but there’s a time and place that it should be used,” says Steve Oomittuk is an elder in the northwest Alaska village of Point Hope. He said in an interview last year that he worries about broadband making it hard for young people to appreciate their indigenous culture.

“I try to let the younger people understand that they have an identity, that should never be forgotten,” Oomittuk said, “that (they) have a rich history, a rich culture.”

Many indigenous peoples worry about their youths losing interest in their language and traditions. And they fear broadband could aggravate that problem.

“There is concern. And there should be concern,” says Cheryl Stine, executive vice president of ASRC, the Inupiaq-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, based in Utqiagvik.

“I mean, we absolutely hear that concern, because I think that what we have are a lot of people that are glued to their phone, not paying attention to what’s going on around them,” she said Monday in an interview during a break between forum sessions.

Stine says that doesn’t mean Alaska Natives should turn their backs on the technology. Rather, she says parents, educators and other community members must teach young people how to responsibly use it.

“We need to be good parents,” she said. “We need to be engaged with our kids, y’know, pay attention to what they’re looking at, making sure they don’t get mired in the things that potentially could be negative about the internet.”

Some, like Patrick Savok, the Northwest Arctic Borough’s chief of staff, believe broadband actually could help indigenous peoples preserve their cultures.

“I think it’s a positive,” Savok said. “As we’ve seen our language and culture stripped away from us, the advent of broadband connectivity – and iPhones and Samsung and all these apps – opens this new world back to us.”

Stine says broadband could facilitate greater sharing of Native culture by allowing schools and other institutions to download large files of data such as those stored in an Inupiat cultural repository in Utqiagvik.

“We have an incredible amount of content that resides at the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission in Barrow that the villages really can’t access because of no broadband, right? There’s too much lag, it takes too much time.”

Stine says ASRC has invested in the Quintillion project in part to help share more widely cultural resources such as those managed by the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.