Book Review: Connecting Alaskans

I recently finished the book:

Hudson, Heather E. 2015. Connecting Alaskans: telecommunications in Alaska from telegraph to broadband.

If you live or frequently work in Alaska or rural communications, I highly recommend this book to you.  It is readable for an academic text, well researched, very well documented and has a robust index. It also appears evenhanded in the debate over whether government or private enterprise can do the better job in bringing modern communications to rural areas.

I came to Alaska in 1998 and I now have a role in statewide library internet access. Connecting Alaskans did a great job of bringing me up to date on how phone, satellite and now broadband communications came to be the way they are here. It also alerted me to educational and telehealth networks I not been previously aware of.

Two chapters were especially helpful to me. Chapter 14, “Alaska’s Local Telephone Companies” gave me context for several of the smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs) I work with. It also gave me higher respect for the gritty and tenacious way most of them got their start.

Chapter 7, “The NASA satellite experiments” documented work done in the 1970s to show the feasibility and usefulness of video and audio communication to rural Alaska, especially in the areas of telehealth and education. The promise and anecdotes from that era were eerily similar to the ones I and other technologists promote for broadband internet access. The technology did help, but the funding was not sustainable. Makes me wonder how we can keep someone from writing the same about rural broadband in 2047.

On a personal note, this book documented a fact that I have suspected for a few years. Part of what motivated me to move to Alaska in 1998 was the fact that at the time, Alaska was ahead of the technological curve. They had a high rate of online adoption for the time and seemed to be moving ahead to use telecommunications to tie Alaska into a future where location did not determine your educational or economic opportunities. While that was true in the late 1990s, the longer view of Alaskan telecommunications history seems to have been one of perpetual catch up, at least from the books perspective.

This makes me sad, but other parts of the book give me hope. Traditionally, Alaskans have been strong advocates for their state and willing to try new things to bring their people closer together. I hope we can rekindle that spirit in these hard budget times and build on the hard work done by the public and private sectors. That we can look past the purely economical and build Alaska communications that work for everyone.

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