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Thanks to the pandemic, broadband is reaching more remote areas in Alaska

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the United States went into lockdown, many people relied on the Internet to live, to work, to go to school, to shop. All of which was nearly impossible in some rural communities that do not have fast Internet. The pressure of the pandemic has finally brought broadband to some remote areas that did not have it. And that means the village of Akiak in western Alaska is finally getting connected. KYUK's Greg Kim reports.

GREG KIM, BYLINE: Akiak resident Lina Foss (ph) salvaged a broken dryer from the village's dump. She couldn't figure out how to fix it.

LINA FOSS: First thing I did was YouTube how to replace a belt. But the Internet was so slow. And I thought it was wasting gigabytes. So I turned that off before I completely finished how to fix that dryer.

KIM: Akiak sits right along the Kuskokwim River. In the summer, people park their small, metal fishing boats on the riverbank. Right now, the river is turning into a frozen highway between Akiak and other villages. I arrived the other way, flying 20 miles from a nearby hub town, crammed into a four-seater plane. Akiak's remote location is why it still lacks high-speed Internet. That has excluded people like Foss from much of ordinary, modern life.

FOSS: It's so embarrassing to check the bank by phone when I know, you know, it's Internet, easy. But it's so slow.

KIM: One of her 460 or so neighbors in this village is Shana Williams (ph). She's got five kids and a full-time job. Then, during the pandemic, Williams decided to go back to school for her college degree. She has the fastest Internet plan available in Akiak. But she says it still can't handle video all the time, which means Williams attends her remote classes by phone.

SHANA WILLIAMS: So I have the meeting ID memorized because this is...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEPING)

WILLIAMS: ...The most reliable way to join class.

KIM: Still, she pays more for Internet access than most people in Akiak can afford.

WILLIAMS: Three hundred fourteen and some cents per month for Internet that is unreliable.

KIM: But once Akiak gets high-speed broadband later this month, Williams bill will become a quarter of what it is now. And her Internet will become twice as fast. The main reason for these advances is because of COVID, according to Blair Levin, a broadband expert at the Brookings Institution.

BLAIR LEVIN: It really focused the mind of everyone - Democrats, Republicans, governors, senators - on the importance of getting broadband everywhere and making sure that everybody could afford to get on.

KIM: Since the pandemic hit, the federal government made billions of dollars available to expand broadband. A good chunk went to rural, tribal lands, some of the least connected areas in the country. But money was only a piece of the puzzle for Akiak. The tribe is also relying on satellite technology that just became available this year in Alaska. These satellites can deliver high-speed Internet to rural areas that cables can't reach.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL WHIRRING)

KIM: That's the sound of technicians installing broadband receivers in Lina Foss' living room. Foss watches eagerly, standing next to her broken dryer.

FOSS: When I have Internet, everything I need for this dryer will be ordered.

KIM: Foss says she could learn to repair her neighbors' broken appliances, too.

FOSS: All this broken stuff will probably be fixed by YouTube. I will probably start a small business, calling it YouTube Fix It All.

KIM: Foss says the Internet is going to open her eyes.

For NPR news, I'm Greg Kim reporting from Akiak, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAY FOR SOUND'S "YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.