In rural Alaska villages, internet banking comes with challenges

Napaskiak, Alaska – Megan Williams felt lucky to have $800 in cash as she crossed the river into the nearby town of Bethel.

At her store in the western Alaska village of Napaskiak, most items are very expensive. A five-pound bag of flour costs $13.85, a two-pound bag of rice costs $9.70, and a 2-liter bottle of Tide detergent costs $28.05.

So every few weeks Williams goes to Bethel, across the Kuskokwim River, to buy her groceries. Things aren’t cheap there, either, because the town of more than 6,000 people isn’t part of Alaska’s road system, and everything is reached by boat or plane. But prices are better than in dozens of villages in western Alaska, where supplies require another flight to reach shelves.

During Williams’ visit to Bethel, an Internet outage rendered payment cards and ATMs useless.

Williams, who had planned to deposit $800 at her credit union, instead used the money to shop for her family. With a cart full of goods, the 25-year-old stood in the checkout lane, counting and counting money while other frustrated shoppers waited. Some other passengers traveled penniless and went home empty-handed.

“I had the right amount of money. It was crazy,” Williams, who is Yupik, said in an interview at the village’s tribal administration office. This building, like others in the village, has been raised to maintain the stability of the area Melting permafrost. There are no roads in Napaskiak, where about 450 residents walk the village’s boardwalk or ride ATVs.

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While such outages are rare, Williams’ experience highlights a difficulty affecting residents of the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta: unreliable Internet service.

Slow internet speeds are affecting customers’ ability to access apps for three depositories with branches in Bethel: First National Bank Alaska, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union and Wells Fargo.

At First National Bank Alaska, branch leaders have backup plans so customers can continue to be served even if they can’t fully connect to networks.

“We’re going back to old banking,” said Nili Sundown, branch manager of First National Bank Alaska’s Bethel branch. “But we will never close the bank. … Our doors are open no matter what the challenges are.”

Thanks to federal grants aimed at expanding high-speed, affordable Internet access, things are starting to change.

Bethel Native Corporation Recently succeeded A $42 million federal grant to build a fiber network in the city and four villages in the region, including Napaskiak. The network will be operated by GCI, the region’s major telecommunications provider, which also received $31 million in federal grants to provide fiber connectivity to some other communities in the region.

The plans mark a major upgrade of existing infrastructure and will “bridge the rural-urban digital divide” for the 10 communities, GCI President Greg Chapados said in October. All of those communities currently operate on “microwave” systems that are much more expensive than fiber networks.

But now, GCI customers in Bethel and surrounding villages pay about $300 a month for download speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, the fastest plan available. Download speeds of up to 2,000 megabytes per second in Anchorage, Fairbanks and two “hub” cities north of Bethel cost about $180 a month.

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Despite the challenges, the Internet has revolutionized how banking works throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where the vast majority of the population is Yukip. One of the most obvious ways is that rapid acceptance of remote deposit of checks helps villagers avoid traveling to Bethel or mailing checks there.

Murals at Zacharias John Williams School in Napaskiak celebrate Yupik land and culture.

Polo Rocha

The trip to Bethel will be expensive. A six-seat plane ride from Napaskiak to Bethel — which takes less than 10 minutes — costs about $180 and offers the only way to travel between the two places when the river is frozen but not strong enough to cross.

Chariton Epchuk, who lives in the village of Quetluk, recalled mailing his salary to the bank and waiting days for the money to reach his account. Sometimes, it didn’t come quickly enough, prompting him to fall behind on mortgage payments and incur late fees of about $25.

“That was the hardest thing for me,” Epchuk said. “I just need to go online today.”

Still, slow internet means using his Alaska USA Federal Credit Union app isn’t always a breeze. Internet is fast early in the morning, but slows down for the rest of the day around noon. “It’s a matter of being patient in the afternoon,” Epchuk said.

Williams, a Napaskiak resident, said Internet is fast in her village early in the morning and when children are at school.

“When we know everybody’s sleeping — that’s when the Internet is fast,” Williams said.

Williams’ mother, Sharon Williams, is a tribal administrator, and the remote deposit seems as connected as ever to her credit union, Alaska USA. “Mhm, pretty close. My fingertip,” she said about whether she felt close to her financier.

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When she was younger, Williams said, it was difficult to get credit from a bank. But she recently applied for a loan online at her credit union, Alaska USA, and was quickly approved. “It was so easy,” she said.

Banks have come a long way, she said.

Sharon Williams recalled her mother struggling with credit growing up. Many Yup’ik people hunt, fish, and gather the staples of their diet—moose, berries, and salmon, though sharp. The availability of the latter is decreasing Concerns are being raised across western Alaska.

Williams’ mother was single, making it difficult for her family to access those food sources, so the family grew up on expensive proteins like beef, chicken, and pork. To put food on the table, Williams’ mother sometimes turned to moneylenders and pawn shops, paying high interest rates along the way.

“Man, that woman was tough,” Sharon Williams said.

Today, payday loan borrowers in Alaska pay an average annual interest rate of 417%, a rate that ranks only six other states in the country where payday lenders operate. Pew Charitable Trusts. About 8,400 Alaskans took out more than $20 million in payday loans in 2021, according to data from the state Division of Banking and Securities. 68 percent of the loans were taken online rather than from physical locations.

Sharon Williams’ mother took an item to a pawn shop that caught her eye — a design Williams’ grandmother had made on the bottom of a Yupik fur parka. “As I got older, I went looking for it and wished I could get it back,” Williams said.

“It’s really near and dear to my heart,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking to see her leave something so precious — so precious, these days.”


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