January 29, 2010 By Andy Opsahl
Broadband stimulus projects focused on delivering high-speed Internet services directly to citizens represent one of four categories for which grants are being awarded by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the two agencies distributing $7.2 billion set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for broadband projects. Networks that bring services directly to users are referred to as "last mile."
Among the winners in the last-mile category was Alaska-based Sea Lion Management Group, partnered with Colorado-based Rivada Networks. The two companies secured $25.3 million from the RUS to bring high-speed wireless connectivity to 44 impoverished communities in southwestern Alaska. Many of the homes in those communities lack access to water and sewer systems. Residents use outhouses and haul water manually from a central location. Some of the villages are not connected to main roads and are usually accessed by small airplanes.
"It's very remote and a very challenging arctic environment in which to work," said Desiree Pfeffer, CEO of Sea Lion Management Group.
The area covers 90,000 square miles and is home to 29,886 villagers, according to a 2008 U.S. Census estimate.
The broadband project will deploy satellite technology and a mesh network of wireless nodes to deliver services to residents and government institutions, like schools and libraries. Subscriptions will cost roughly $30 per month, and Pfeffer said Sea Lion was confident it could attract enough business to sustain the network financially. She declined to specify the number of subscriptions Sea Lion and Rivada Networks would need to reach that sustainability.
The companies have had preliminary discussions with government agencies about the network, but none of them has committed to subscribing to services, according to Pfeffer.
"We will market to them, but the grant was based on [serving] households," Pfeffer said.
Nearly every village in the area has some type of community center serving as a hub for health care, education, public safety and other community functions. Sea Lion says its new network will enable the villages, typically consisting of 100 to 500 people, to provide telemedicine, virtual learning and broadband-related public safety technologies.
Pfeffer said her team would erect its network at only 10 percent of the cost of traditionally expensive fiber-optic and microwave technology networks. Sea Lion promises 20 times the speed currently available in southwestern Alaska at 80 percent less cost to the user.
Sea Lion and Rivada haven't started the project yet because they haven't received their grant money from the RUS. The award notice Sea Lion received on Dec 18 said the RUS was required to transmit the funds no later than 70 days after Dec. 18. Pfeffer said the network would be completed no later than 2011.