In rural Alaska villages, internet banking comes with challenges

NAPASKIAK, Alaska — Megan Williams felt lucky that she was carrying $800 in cash when she crossed the river into the nearby city of Bethel.

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

So every few weeks, Williams goes to buy her groceries in Bethel, which is just across the Kuskokwim River. Things aren’t cheap there either, since the city of more than 6,000 is not part of Alaska’s road system, and everything arrives by boat or plane. But the prices are better than in the dozens of villages in western Alaska, where supplies require yet another plane trip to reach shelves.

During one of Williams’ visits to Bethel, an internet outage made payment cards and ATMs unusable.

Williams, who had planned to deposit $800 at her credit union, instead used that cash to shop for her family. With a cart full of items, the 25-year old stood in the checkout lane counting and recounting her money, while other frustrated shoppers waited. Some other travelers made the trip without cash and went home empty-handed.

“I had the right amount on hand. It was crazy, though,” Williams, who is Yup’ik, said in an interview at the village’s tribal administration office. The building, like others in the village, is elevated to keep it steady in the region’s thawing permafrost. There are no roads in Napaskiak, where the roughly 450 residents walk or drive ATVs through the village’s boardwalk.

Though such outages are rare, Williams’ experience highlights a difficulty that affects residents all over the Yukon-Kuskokwim river delta: unreliable internet service.

Slow internet speeds affect customers’ ability to access the apps for the three depositories that have 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 in place so they can keep serving customers even if they can’t fully connect to networks.

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

Things are starting to change, thanks to federal grants aimed at expanding access to high-speed, affordable internet.

The Bethel Native Corporation recently won 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 run by GCI, the main telecommunications provider in the area, which also received $31 million through a federal grant to provide fiber connectivity to a few other communities in the region.

The projects will mark a major upgrade of existing infrastructure and “eliminate the rural-urban digital divide” for the 10 communities that will benefit, GCI President Greg Chapados said in October. Those communities all currently run on a “microwave” system that is much more expensive to maintain than fiber networks.

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

Despite the challenges, the internet has revolutionized how banking works across the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, where the vast majority of the population is Yup’ik. Among the most tangible ways is the rapid adoption of the remote deposit of checks, helping village residents avoid having to make a trip to Bethel or mail checks there.

The murals at Zacharias John Williams School in Napaskiak celebrate Yup’ik lands and culture.

Polo Rocha

Travel to Bethel can be expensive. A six-seater 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 freezing but isn’t solid enough yet to cross.

Chariton Epchook, who lives in the village of Kwethluk, recalled mailing his paychecks to the bank and waiting several days for the money to hit his account. Sometimes, it didn’t come soon enough, prompting him to be late on his mortgage payments and incur late fees of about $25.

“That was the most difficult thing for me,” Epchook said. “Today, all I have to do is go online.” 

Still, the slow internet means it’s not always a breeze to use his Alaska USA Federal Credit Union app. The internet is fast early in the morning, but it slows down starting about noon for the rest of the day. “It’s a matter of having patience in the afternoon,” Epchook said.

Williams, the Napaskiak resident, said the internet is fastest in her village early in the morning and when kids are in school.

“When we know everyone is asleep — that’s when the internet is fast,” Williams said.

Williams’ mother, Sharon Williams, is the tribal administrator and says remote deposit has made her feel as connected as ever to her credit union, Alaska USA. “Mhm, very close. Tip of my fingers,” she said about whether she feels close to her financial institution.

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

Banks have come a “long way,” she said.

Sharon Williams recalled seeing her mother struggle with credit growing up. Many Yup’ik people hunt, fish and gather staples in their diet — such as moose, berries and salmon, though sharp declines in the availability of the latter is raising concerns across western Alaska.

Williams’ mom was single, making it difficult for her family to get those food sources, so the family grew up on costlier protein like beef, chicken and pork. To put food on the table, Williams’ mother would sometimes turn to payday loans and pawn shops, paying high interest rates along the way.

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

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

One item that Sharon Williams’ mother took to a pawn shop tugs at her mind — the design that Williams’ grandmother made for the bottom of a Yup’ik fur parka. “As I got older, I wished I could go look for it, get it back,” Williams said. 

“It’s really near and dear to the heart,” she said. “To watch her give up something that is so very valuable — nowadays, very valuable — just a heartache.”

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