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According to Alaska broadband company MTA, FTTH costs $9,000 per pass

  • Alaska broadband provider MTA is a cooperative owned by its member customers.
  • MTA pays about $9,000 to $10,000 per pass to lay fiber optics for its members
  • The company plans to apply for BEAD funds

If there are any telecommunications companies in the United States that are experts at closing the digital divide, it's those in Alaska. The state covers 663,267 square miles, more than Texas, California, and Montana combined.

And Alaska's MTA has been connecting the state's citizens for over 70 years, so it has plenty of experience. MTA is a customer-owned cooperative. It was founded in 1953 to provide telephone services to the people. And like all telecommunications companies, it has evolved over the years. It is currently focused on providing broadband access via fiber optics to its 34,000 members.

MTA CEO Michael Burke told Fierce Network that the company covers broadband subscribers in an area of ​​10,000 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Maryland, but with a population density of less than 2%.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced some grant recipients for its ReConnect broadband program. And the announcement revealed that Alaska Telephone Company, which won a $33 million grant, planned to lay fiber optics to 211 homes and five businesses at the staggering cost of nearly $204,000 per pass.

Needless to say, taxpayers were appalled.

Burke said, “Most places you hear about costing $200,000 are far from the road system. Our average cost is more in the range of $9,000 to $10,000 per place. But it still adds up to a lot.”

MTA has 5,500 miles of infrastructure in its network. It reaches approximately 3,000 to 3,500 homes annually with fiber. Most of these locations have DSL, which MTA is building over with fiber. In new residential developments, fiber to the home (FTTH) is also being deployed.

Even though the company is pushing ahead with the fiber optic expansion as quickly as possible, it is limited by the construction season, which is only five months long due to the long winters.

When asked for tips on how to close the digital divide with fiber, Burke said, “The most important thing is to understand the areas you want to serve.” It's important to study the maps, know the different types of terrain, and understand the permitting requirements. It's also important to have qualified work crews available.

MTA tries to keep its broadband prices as low as possible. Because it's a cooperative, it can either use profits to fund capital costs for further expansion or lower prices for its members. It currently charges about $170 a month for 1 Gbps service.

Burke said that not only are the costs of deploying fiber optics in Alaska high, but the costs of transporting it over long distances are also high because the MTA's closest internet peering site is 2,000 miles away.

GRAIN

Alaska received $1 billion in Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment (BEAD) program funds. The Alaska Broadband Office is currently in the midst of the FCC map challenge process under the BEAD program. As of June 5, the federal map challenge portal has been closed, and as of June 6, the counterpart portal is open until July 5.

Burke said the MTA will apply for BEAD grants, but “it's more than just continuing to build and upgrade fiber-to-the-home.” For its part, the MTA also benefits from state funding through the Alaska Plan and through ReConnect grants.

He said there will definitely be places in Alaska where fixed wireless access (FWA) and satellite technology make the most sense. “BEAD is focused on fiber optic because it's future-proof,” Burke said. “But there are places where they're just not practical.”

He pointed out that even FWA requires fiber optics to the cell tower for backhaul. β€œIt [FWA] is not a panacea everywhere.”

Anna Harden

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