What Digital Equity Means for Rural Alaska
Monday, June 5, 2023
What Digital Equity Means for Rural Alaska
To aid both state broadband policymakers and local communities as they create state visions of digital equity, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society's Visions of Digital Equity Project engaged six community contributors. These individuals bring diverse perspectives to the issues surrounding digital equity, from Alaska to Texas, covering rural, urban, and tribal challenges, highlighting issues of digital accessibility and digital justice. In the coming days, we'll highlight their voices in a series of essays.
Dleł Taaneets is the traditional name of my hometown of Rampart; it means “the hanging moose hide,” which the bluffs near our village mimic in color. My ancestors survived on these lands by following the lifeways of the season: spruce tips and birds in spring, salmon and plants in the summer, berries and moose in winter, trapping in the winter. Living off the lands of Alaska is unforgiving due to extreme weather, but my lineage endured and thrived by maintaining respect for one another, having gratitude to the animals and plants, and honoring the gorgeous lands that sustained them.
Time moves differently in Alaska as we slowly assimilate into modern times. Founded in the 1800s, Rampart was a mining town that grew to over 10,000 people at one time. But as the gold rush dwindled, settlers left Rampart until only the Indigenous population remained. My uncle told about what it was like growing up in Rampart back in the day, traditionally living off the land and waterways while going through major transitions. Two significant events happened in the 1970s to villages in Alaska: Electricity arrived in remote communities, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) changed the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the government in our state.
I was a ’90s baby growing up in Rampart, surrounded by technology that predated me, finding artifacts over a hundred years old, and harvesting our traditional foods that nourished my family since time immemorial. I started hauling water, doing dishes, dumping the honey bucket, taking care of kids, and all sorts of intensive manual labor by the time I was 12 years old. The only place that had running water in our community was the laundromat where showers cost $2 for 10 minutes of water and people washed their babies in a big sunken metal sink to save money. The school shut down when I was five years old, so all the families had to choose between moving to another village (with limited jobs and housing) or moving to a city (with the risk of culture shock). My family chose to spend winters in the city of Fairbanks during the school year; we returned to Rampart in the summers to fish for salmon, followed by moose hunting in the fall.
I don’t know when Rampart was first connected to the internet, but access wasn’t available for individual families like mine until I was an upperclassman in high school. To access the internet, my cousins and I would go to sit outside the Tribal office after hours during the midnight sun season, surrounded by mosquitos—a practice still done to this day.
At the beginning of 2021, I left the oppressive service industry and promised myself to apply only to jobs that would begin my career in serving community. After months of pursuing jobs with no success, my eena (mother) forwarded me an email with an application to be the Broadband Specialist for the Native Movement and Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AKPIRG). The work involved educating consumers, networking, and influencing policy. I had to look up what broadband and telecommunications were, and I read up on both. I familiarized myself with the Just Transition Collective, an alliance of organizations, initiatives, and people within Alaska supporting one another’s work for our vision of a more sustainable and community-centered state, and I studied its values before I was comfortable applying. I realized how revolutionary affordable internet access would be in Alaska and was eager to begin giving back to my state by being an activist for digital equity.
Alaska is the biggest state in the nation. It is one-fifth of the continental United States. Alaska holds the titles of the most northern, western, and eastern state. Our population is around 730,000—down 10,000 people from 2016. We have almost half of the Tribes in the nation, with 228 Tribal Governments, more than 190 village corporations, 12 regional ANCSA corporations, one reservation, and the highest percentage of Native population of any state at 15% or more. More than seventy percent of our communities are not accessible by road. Villages have dwindled in size due to lack of work opportunities, inadequate health care, and under
-funded schools. The same reasons that Alaska needs the internet are the same reasons it’s difficult to build here: extreme weather, remoteness, small population, and high expenses.
Once I started in my role, I read everything about Alaskan broadband I could get my hands on, such as A Blueprint for Alaska’s Broadband Future. I dove deeply into every internet service provider (ISP) and telecommunications company I could find in the state. I emailed the companies, explaining whom I worked with, and identified my initiatives: education, networking, and policy. Soon I was reaching out to national and international organizations that worked in the telecommunications field or on digital equity. I became connected to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), Indigenous Connectivity Institute (ICI), National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), Connected Nation, and many others.
As I became entrenched in the work, I realized how inaccessible and confusing the world of telecommunications is to the average internet user with the jargon and lack of entry points. There is no standard of transparency or accountability to communities. There’s undisclosed redlining.
Tribes aren’t ready for this work when many of them don’t even have running water. Federal grants become impossibly hard to complete with little to no aid to navigate complex applications. With this understanding, it came time to testify to the Governor's Broadband Task Force and the state legislature on House Bill 363 (HB363). HB363 created the state broadband office and established a blueprint for how federal funding would be spent by the state of Alaska. I advocated for transparency, accountability, entry points, and technology neutrality. During this time, I continuously shared information across social media to educate people about these systems and encourage them to testify and have their voice heard. Through my work, the number of people who testified before the Governor’s Task Force doubled. I worked collaboratively with other advocates to continue to testify at every session about HB363. Through testifying I found digital equity advocates, mentors, and comrades in Alaska.
In 2022 I began attending conferences and meeting people in person for the first time. This led me to partake in initiatives at the state, federal, and international levels, including informational presentations in Alaska for users. I attended two state broadband conventions, met with the Rasmuson Foundation (which is in charge of Alaska’s State Digital Equity planning), and attended the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention—the biggest Indigenous gathering in the state, with thousands of people flying in. Not only did I attend many national conferences, but I also spoke at Net Inclusion, the Bipartisan Tech Policy Conference, and the National Congress of American Indians Mid Year Conference. As millions of dollars enter the state for broadband, I’ve been sought out as a Tribal liaison, invited to be on various initiatives, and worked on uplifting local voices.
As I enter various broadband spaces, my identity as a young Alaska Native woman speaks loudly before I say anything. I represent identities systematically excluded, and my work seeks to systematically include those left behind. The way I carry myself—because how we do the work is the work—has given me all the opportunities I am taking advantage of now. I am part of the team doing listening sessions for Alaska’s State Digital Equity Plan, am going to be part of the state’s Affordable Connectivity Program outreach, and am helping to host an international Tribal event in the state this year, along with many side quests in the name of digital equity. Participating in this work can be overwhelming and uncertain, but I am always met with support and encouragement. The people in the digital equity space are for community, from community.
I find great joy in this work because I always hold my inner child close; I always return to the village baby I once was. I never expected to get into telecommunications, and I don’t know how long I will be in it, but I will remain relentless in my vision of having affordable internet in remote Alaska because that will allow me to return to my homeland to work and live in my community. Having access to affordable internet service will allow all Alaskans’ voices to be heard, allow them to attend school, ensure greater safety, increase communication, and give us another tool to gather to share our culture. It will give us the opportunity to make the internet a better place with our presence. If I ever choose to have or raise children, I want to have little village babies who can have everything I had and more: access to opportunities, a safe home, a healthy family, their culture, and to grow up on their lands like their ancestors did. The internet is a tool I never had when my family needed it, and I work for every Alaskan, young and old, to have safe, affordable, equitable access to the internet so that they can use it in ways that will allow them to thrive.
Brittany Woods-Orrison is a Koyukon Dené woman from Dleł Taaneets, an Alaskan village along the Yukon River. She grew up on her ancestral homelands learning how to harvest traditional foods and being taught her culture. Brittany attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, then continued her student-athlete career at Menlo College. Brittany traveled around the Western United States learning about the lands, the waters, and the Indigenous stewards for a couple of years before returning home to Alaska to be the broadband specialist for Alaska Public Interest Research Group and Native Movement. Brittany now works on digital equity, cultural revitalization, food sovereignty, reconnecting to the land, and deep community building.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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