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A USDA Broadband Grant Connects a Bering Sea Island to the World

Saint Paul Harbor in the Pribilof Islands. The Native community will soon receive improved broadband service thanks to USDA funding support. Photo courtesy of Scott Schuette and used with permission of TDX.

Saint Paul Harbor in the Pribilof Islands. The Native community will soon receive improved broadband service thanks to USDA funding support. Photo courtesy of Scott Schuette and used with permission of TDX.

The significance of a recently awarded USDA Community Connect Broadband grant to the predominantly Native town of Saint Paul, Alaska, can’t really be appreciated until you know about this isolated community on one of the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.  It is not served by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system and the major shipping routes are 250 miles to the south.  The island is too far from the closest urban centers (more than 700 miles) to reach by light aircraft.  No commercial jet service is available.   Most supplies arrive by charter or flying service while freight arrives by barge, seasonally when the Bering Sea is ice-free.  Winter travel in the Bering Sea can be extreme with violent seas and high winds.  Air travel throughout the remaining months is often disrupted by heavy fog and ice fog.  To say this is a remote area is an understatement.

The Community Connect project is desperately needed on Saint Paul Island.  Available 2010 Census statistics show the community in distress.  In 1990 the population was 763; by 2010 it was 479.  This is at a time when Alaska’s less remote non-Native rural population is growing.  With few available natural resources on this treeless island, Internet Connectivity is the core foundation for economic and demographic turn around.

Until recently TDXNET, a Native owned-telecommunications firm, supported implementation of a contract on the island that provided document digitization with online data transfer. Due to slow Internet speeds, tele-workers on Saint Paul were forced to utilize the mail service to back up their “high tech work product.”

With implementation of this Community Connect grant, telework will become a practical and viable economic activity on the island. Saint Paul’s population has been declining at the rate of 14 residents per year.  This is equivalent to more than four jobs per year.  With broadband stabilizing the economy, this is a estimated savings of 22 jobs in five years.

TDX anticipates that broadband access will stimulate the economy and restore jobs that have been lost over the last few years. In the next five years it will result in saving or creating an estimated additional 44 full time jobs including the five existing jobs at TDX Internet Services on the Island.

The project will also immediately create or partially fund 23 construction and clerical jobs.

The long term, positive impact of implementing the Community Connect grant is nothing short of halting the critical loss of population from the Island.  The people of the Pribilofs believe that broadband funded through USDA will be a catalyst for economic development.

To find out more about USDA Rural Development support for rural broadband projects click here.

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