RCA asks state telecoms for broadband coverage plans

State utility regulators are doing their best to live up to a legislative directive to examine broadband coverage in Alaska and providers’ future plans despite not having any authority to do so.

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska issued an Aug. 9 request for companies providing broadband service in the state to answer any or all of two dozen questions the commission has about the current status of broadband infrastructure and what the state could do to help expand coverage, among other things.

The seven-page request also asks for a contact list of broadband internet service providers in Alaska and inquires about communities where broadband is available and at what download speeds from those internet providers.

While the RCA has regulatory jurisdiction over a broad range of public service-providing entities including gas, electric, telecom and wastewater utilities and pipelines, it does not in any way regulate the broadband industry in Alaska.

The 2018 fiscal year state operating budget passed in late June under the threat of a government shutdown contains intent language ordering the RCA to draft an analysis of the state’s broadband situation for the House and Senate Finance committees and the Legislative Finance Division by Dec. 1 of this year.

To that end, RCA spokeswoman Grace Salazar wrote in an email that the commission will do everything it can to comply with the Legislature’s intent but learning about the status of broadband in Alaska “is going to require a high level of cooperation from the telecommunications industry.”

Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, a House Finance Committee member who pushed to have the broadband paragraph added to the budget, said in a House Majority coalition release that he’s convinced the RCA’s report will illustrate that Alaska needs more competition in the broadband sector to lower costs and improve service.

“I am confident the effort by the RCA to document the coverage gaps in Alaska will provide lawmakers, regulators and providers with the needed information to make the right decisions to ensure Alaskans can use broadband as a tool to help start a small business, connect with people from across the globe, and enjoy all that is available online,” Guttenberg said.

While the RCA is asking for some information as basic as maps detailing where coverage is offered and infrastructure is located, Alaska Telephone Association Executive Director Christine O’Connor said the commission is also requesting granular data and some information that could be competitively sensitive.

Her members, primarily rural Alaska telephone and internet providers but also the state’s largest such as GCI and Alaska Communications, are trying to figure out what information they have, how quickly it can be provided and at what cost, according to O’Connor.

“Broadband service is the priority for all ATA member companies and we support all efforts to provide broadband for Alaskans. It is important to us to help policymakers advance that goal wherever possible, while also balancing judicious use of limited resources which should be directed to broadband infrastructure and service whenever possible,” she wrote in an email.

The RCA is asking for responses by Sept. 8.

Some of GCI’s competitors and smaller, local rural internet providers have filed objections with the Federal Communications Commission to the pending purchase of GCI by the Colorado-based telecom investment firm Liberty Interactive Corp. for $1.2 billion.

They contend GCI — the dominant Alaska telecom — has used federal subsidies to build a monopoly and control broadband access and pricing across the state.

GCI counters that building out broadband infrastructure in rural Alaska is exceedingly expensive and it has been the only company willing to match the available federal funds with its own significant investments to do so. The company has stated it used $250 million of its capital to build the $300 million TERRA broadband network.

Alaska Communications plans to respond to the RCA’s request, according to a spokeswoman for the company.

GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said the company is reviewing the request and determining how to respond.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
08/16/2017 - 12:33pm

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