Success Story: Broadband Links Alaska Library Users to a Wider World
Craig, Alaska (population: 1,397) is a picturesque fishing and logging village on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska’s southeastern archipelago. It’s also extremely remote. Juneau, the state capital, is 220 miles away. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is 720 miles distant. “You want to go to Wal-Mart?” asks Amy Marshall, who runs Craig’s library. “You get in a car for an hour, then go four hours by ferry to Juneau. That’s remote.”
Craig also is isolated technologically. Until recently the town had only limited Internet access, primarily in the library Marshall manages. “But I had data limits,” she says. “So when the library was closed I had to turn off the wireless hub. At 5 o’clock, when I closed, I’d hear people outside using their laptops yelling ‘Noooo!’”
But now the Craig Public Library offers residents an unlimited broadband connection, as well as new desktop and laptop computers they can use to access the Web. It’s all part of the Alaska Online With Libraries (OWL) Project, which is designed to help bring Internet access to Alaskans and improve the computing capabilities of public libraries throughout the state. OWL is funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska State Library.
Craig’s high-speed Internet system, along with a number of similar systems serving other Alaska libraries, was designed and implemented by GCI SchoolAccess, a division of telecommunications provider GCI.
The Alaska State Library is charged with making a wide range of library services available to Alaskans. This includes offering library science and consulting services to all types of libraries; serving as the primary research library for state government; and collecting Alaska-related material.
Even more than libraries elsewhere, the Alaska State Library finds that many libraries look to its leadership to help communities obtain access to computers and Internet connections. These connections can be transforming for Alaskans living in isolated communities and villages, creating access to educational, social, and economic opportunities previously unavailable.
People outside of Alaska often have a difficult time grasping the sheer size of the state. Laid over a map of the Lower 48, Alaska and its southern archipelago and western islands extend from Florida to California. That scale makes it impossible to link remote communities via wired Internet access, meaning many areas had limited or no access to the information superhighway that has changed the world.
Even where satellite broadband was available, its cost is prohibitive for most people. “The only logical place to set up broadband connections is in a school or public library,” says Sue Sherif, head of library development for the Alaska State Library system. “Otherwise it costs too much for most people to subscribe at home.”
Overcoming that hurdle in the first year of the project meant equipping 37 libraries with new broadband connection equipment including satellite dishes in the most remote areas. Public libraries in all areas of the state are receiving updated PCs or laptops to take advantage of the new capabilities and ensure the wait times for access are not excessive. Each library not only would became a public library computing center, but also would serve as a videoconference network endpoint. In the project’s second phase a similar number of public libraries, particularly ones that are located within community schools, will come on board.
In 2011 OWL began rolling out to libraries that lacked reliable or affordable Internet access. Those included libraries such as the one in Craig, where librarian Marshall has seen huge changes as a result of the new access.
“It’s just awesome,” she says. “We now have a videoconference feature that we are having a lot of fun with. I do something with kids where we write song lyrics – we don’t tell them they’re learning anything – and send them to Nashville. Down there a songwriter writes music, then over the Internet we can jam with her.”
Marshall also has people come in on fishing boats, pull out a Kindle, and download books from the Alaska State Library. “Before I had to say, ‘I can’t help you’ – we didn’t have a connection that would support it. But now we do, and it is awesome – everyone is loving this.”
The same thing is happening in and near Juneau, where OWL has allowed the main library there, as well as two branches, to give patrons much broader and more usable Web access.
“We’ve really had two very successful programs for kids via the new videoconferencing equipment,” says Jonas Lamb, outreach librarian for the Juneau Public Library. “One is Dazzling Dinosaurs, which takes students on a virtual visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta (Canada). They got to see Tyrannosaurus Rex and some other great dinosaurs. Another is Storytime, which features our U.S. senator, Lisa Murkowski, reading to youngsters.”
In some cases the OWL access provides a town’s only real connection to the outside. That’s the case in tiny Lake Minchumina, located almost squarely in the center of Alaska and populated by all of 19 people during the winter.
“Entertainment is always a big daily use,” says Shawna Hytry, librarian in Lake Minchumina. “PBS Kids, sports, gaming, movies, Skype, radio, NASCAR, looking at photos, sending photos or receiving photos via email, history, poetry, genealogy – all those things. Facebook is huge. We are so remote and far from family it is the best way to keep in touch.”
“People also make reservations, conduct business, read the newspaper – we only get the Sunday newspaper out here, and it’s at least a week old when it reaches us. And homeschoolers often use the computers and internet for online classes.”
Adults appreciate the chance to learn online as well. Especially popular is a link to the state library that gives patrons access to equipment manuals. With them, people can repair the snow machines, chain saws, and other pieces of equipment that are essential to life in Alaska’s remote interior. “If your chainsaw is broken you can't cut your firewood to heat your house for the winter,” says Hytry. “If your snow machine or four-wheeler is broken you'll have to haul water by foot with a wagon.”
Through OWL, aspiring authors also have a chance to hit the big time. A program called “Pitchapaloooza” is a recent videoconference network event that brings prominent literary agents to Alaska, where they listen to book pitches from local residents. The agents can’t make it to every town and village in the state, of course, so many Pitchapalooza participants made their pitches using the OWL connection in their community library.
The success of OWL depends on reliable connections to the Internet. GCI’s deep experience in taking the web to remote parts of Alaska had paid off. In communities where GCI already had a presence, it was a relatively simple matter to run an additional cable to the community library to make the OWL connection via GCI’s satellite connection and land-based lines.
In other communities, GCI installed a satellite receiving dish and supporting equipment, secured the site, and connected the local library’s computers to the new service. With OWL, libraries now have reliable access to connections, providing 1.5mps of download speeds and upload speeds – fast enough symmetrical connections to make video conferencing and other data-intensive or interactive applications possible. And that’s making a lot of library patrons happy. “We’re having fun with it,” says Marshall. “But OWL also is bringing to us things we otherwise just wouldn’t have.”
"Our goals are never about the technology, but about instruction using technology in a variety of ways. GCI has been flexible and responsive enough to support our instructional integration as we have grown and changed as an organization."
- John Concilus, Director of Educational Technology, Bering Strait School District
"The expertise that GCI provided in setting up the (distance learning) system and in working with us as we learned to operate it was very beneficial to our educators, who wanted to focus on the content and not the technology. With GCI's support we have reached over 5,000 students across the U.S. since our program launched in 2005."
- Darin Trobaugh, Education Program Coordinator, Alaska SeaLife Center
"GCI and their team of Engineers in Anchorage are a force to be reckoned with. They have continually proven over the years to be a team player with ASTE."
- Todd Schechter, Chief Networking Engineer, Alaska Society of Technology in Education
"Petersburg City School District is very pleased with its relationship with GCI. The district considers GCI to be a strong and important partner in the overall mission of providing an outstanding education to the students of Petersburg. As a "cutting edge", "one-to-one laptop" remote island district that relies very heavily upon stable, fast, and trouble free broadband service, the district has come to expect exceptional service from GCI as the norm."
- Robert Thomason, Ed.D., Superintendent, Petersburg City Schools
"GCI's SchoolAccess program has not only pioneered the delivery of video technology in bush Alaska, they have wrapped content and outreach around their service adding immense value. One Vision is proud to support the efforts of this innovative partner."
- George Woltors, NW Territory Manager, One Vision
"GCI’s contribution of live streaming the events during our National Competition was a great success. Our schools and families that were unable to attend the event had the opportunity to see their student(s) in person. Without GCI this would not have happened!"
- Les Martisko, Ph.D., CEO, United States Academic Decathlon
"GCI SchoolAccess has serviced the Jemez Mountain School District for the past seven years impeccably. GCI has developed a product that eliminates many of the pitfalls of traditional piece-meal approaches to implement Internet services by bundling the most critical services into a concise package. Additionally, GCI is well established in the navigation of E-Rate protocols, has an outstanding technical support team, and has a highly competent education program manager."
- Adan Delgado, Former Superintendent, Jemez Mountain School District
"We have a tradition of providing our faculty, staff, and students with the most up-to-date technology that can be made available, and GCI makes carrying on that tradition a possibility. GCI is instrumental in the planning, designing, and implementation of our distance learning services. This support, along with the broadband services provided by GCI, has allowed our distance learning program to be second to none in Alaska."
- George Gladish, TAI Coordinator, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI School Access has been a great partner for Ilisagvik College. In 2012 and 2013, they donated funds to support our annual STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp, which provides a fun and educational opportunity for rural Alaskan youth. We are very grateful to GCI School Access for their sponsorship!"
- Pearl Brower, President, Ilisagvik College
"GCI has been providing technical support for videoconferencing events at the ISTE Conferences in San Antonio and San Diego to the IVC Operations Teams for the past two years. Their knowledge and experience has been a key to our success."
- Paul Hieronymus, IVC Operations Chairman, 2013 ISTE Conference
"GCI SchoolAccess makes it possible for our coaches and volunteers to communicate in the villages and most importantly make sure the students are safe by providing our coaches with mobile technology in the villages."
- Lars Flora, Director, NANANordic
"CILC has partnered with GCI SchoolAccess over the last few years on many projects that have benefited and enriched the life of people both in Alaska and the lower 48. Much of this would not have been possible without the leadership of Dr. Pam Lloyd."
- Janet L. Zanetis, CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"Our administration realized our aggressive approach to educational achievement could only be met with a network that can support the growing number of mobile devices in our district and the increasing use of video conferencing for our classes. GCI SchoolAccess helped us transition off satellite and onto a terrestrial service that supports these goals."
- Dan Walker, Assistant Superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"The most powerful thing in a traditional classroom is the connection between the teacher and the student. And that connection happens over two-way video."
- Gary Baldwin, former superintendent, Lower Kuskokwim School District
"GCI is a strong educational partner with the Alaska Distance Education Consortium, helping to expand broadband, bring technical solutions, and instructional programming to high need areas."
- John Monahan, Alaska Distance Education Consortium
"Educating 4 Leadership has benefited enormously from our partnership with SchoolAccess to provide student leadership and 1:1 resources for Alaska, other states, and the UK at present. We consider the contributions from SchoolAccess to be completely vital to our work and success during the past three years. We appreciate their support!"
- Dr. Mark Standley, CEO, Educating 4 Leadership
"In the 15 years I have been an administrator in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District we have been utilizing Broadband services from GCI. The distances and the cold and lack of infrastructure are tough challenges, but GCI is among the best of all vendors that we use for services to our students, faculties, and schools."
- Norman Eck, Ph.D., Superintendent, Northwest Arctic Borough School District
"GCI has been an instrumental partner in helping the Alaska Zoo develop a Long Distance Education Program. This program provides a venue for the Alaska Zoo to expand the reach of its Education classes through video conferencing and the ability to share Education Programs with students throughout our state."
- Patrick Lampi, Executive Director, Alaska Zoo
"GCI is a company with an exceptionally strong reputation for its expertise in building out networks in rough terrains and for their deep knowledge in all aspects of videoconferencing. Throughout my several years of partnering with GCI, I have come to learn that those who work within the education division are dedicated to the mission of bringing world-class opportunities to all learners across Alaska, including some of the most remote corners of the state."
- Ruth Blankenbaker, Former CEO, The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC)
"GCI has a long track record of being a friend to schools and libraries in the State of Alaska. Despite the unpredictable timing of E-rate funding, GCI's willingness to work with anchor institutions by appling discounts and handling E-rate invoicing is a welcome relief when staff is small. Steve Walker and his team at GCI deserve a big THANK YOU for finding ways to make the billing process understandable and manageable for the smallest of our schools and libraries."
- Valerie Oliver, Alaska USF/E-Rate Coordinator for Alaska Schools and Libraries