In landmark visit, First Lady Jill Biden heads to Bethel touting administration’s broadband internet efforts

Biden’s trip to the western Alaska town marks the first for a FLOTUS
First Lady Jill Biden waves to the crowd during a stop in Bethel, Alaska, on May 17.
First Lady Jill Biden waves to the crowd during a stop in Bethel, Alaska, on May 17.(KTUU)
Published: May. 18, 2023 at 12:52 AM AKDT|Updated: May. 19, 2023 at 1:36 PM AKDT
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BETHEL, Alaska (KTUU) - First Lady of the United States Jill Biden was in Western Alaska on Wednesday, marking the first visit by a current FLOTUS to Bethel.

As part of a visit by federal officials, Biden — with support from the Biden-Harris Administration and others — was in town touting efforts to improve broadband internet access in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

“I got to know this incredible state a bit better,” Biden said to a crowd Wednesday night. “I saw how the bonds of family and friendship, of tribes and tradition; it was just beautiful.

“Everybody just knows everybody else,” she laughed. “I saw, really, how acutely you are all connected to the natural world around you, from the migration of salmon, to the cycles of the sun.

“And yet, I also learned about the challenges you face,” she continued, “and how communities in rural areas, like this one, often feel unseen and underappreciated for their unique contributions to the country.”

Speaking from Bethel High School, and after being greeted by Alaska First Lady Rose Dunleavy and Bethel Mayor Rose Henderson, Biden focused in large part on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — which was signed into law by her husband in November 2021 — and the ongoing efforts to funnel money allocated in that bill into Alaska.

“I took all of your stories, really, home with me,” Biden said, “and I told them to my husband, Joe, and he listened. And that’s why he and his administration worked with your representatives in Congress to invest over $100 million here in the YK Delta, and even more statewide, so that you can bring affordable, faster, more reliable internet to Alaska.

“With high-speed internet,” she said, “you’ll have better access to critical health care, new educational tools, and remote job opportunities. It will change lives, and it will save lives.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a bipartisan piece of federal legislation, was designed to provide new funding for infrastructure projects across America. Broadband is one of the many projects listed in the bill, which also includes improvements to roads, bridges, railways, airports, water systems and more, all across the country. Approximately $65 billion was dedicated within the bill “to help ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet,” according to the White House.

According to the Office of the First Lady, the Biden Administration has to date awarded $386 million in Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants to 21 Alaska projects. In 2022, about $125 million went toward two broadband infrastructure projects, it said, including the Airraq Network and the Alaska FiberOptic Project, both in the YK Delta region.

A White House fact sheet also shows that so far, Alaska has received just $5 million through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program to go toward improved access to high-speed internet across the state, though Alaska is eventually expected to “receive a minimum allocation of at least $100 million to help ensure high-speed internet coverage,” according to the same document.

Progress is a process, but Rep. Mary Sattler-Peltola — who originally hails from Bethel and was elected to her first full term in the U.S. House in November — said she was thankful to have Biden in town.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland joined in on the visit to Bethel in person as well, marking her second trip to the state in an official capacity, and her first since the withdrawal of a Trump-era land exchange between the Department of the Interior and King Cove Corp., which would’ve facilitated the development of a road in that area.

“It’s an honor to join First Lady Dr. Jill Biden,” Haaland said, “and to be part of an administration that is making transformational investments in Indian Country. Since day one, President Biden made the commitment to bring our voices to the table, to engage in meaningful nation-to-nation consultation, and to honor our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes.”

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan were not in attendance Wednesday.

Murkowski’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment. Sullivan’s office shared a written statement on his behalf, saying that he is happy to see federal officials taking the time to visit rural communities but hopes that the Biden Administration listens to Alaskans and understands how national policies affect the state.

“I hope the First Lady and Secretary Haaland take the time to listen to Alaskans who have been harmed by the Biden administration’s policies,” he said. Sullivan added that Haaland’s decision over the land exchange halted a project that “would have provided King Cove residents life-saving medical care access.”

“In total, there have been 48 executive orders and actions singularly targeting Alaska under the Biden Administration,” Sullivan continued. “Many of these were done without any consultation from Alaskans. The Biden Administration needs to do better and listen to the people of Alaska.”

As for the first lady, she is headed to Japan to join Pres. Joe Biden — who formally announced earlier this year that he plans to seek another term in the Oval Office — for the International Group of Seven Summit in Hiroshima, which begins May 19.