Finding Alaska’s Villages And Connecting Them - Book Review

Contributed by Bonnye Matthews

The history of telecommunications in the United States is a fascinating story. The 1920s idea of the phone in every home changed over time from a goal to a virtual necessity by the last quarter of the twentieth century. The direct line, switchboard, rotary direct dial, pushbutton services all were part of the experience of the United States before native Alaska villages were even connected.  

Alaska is a different place with different, sometimes difficult needs. Imagine a state the size of California, Montana, plus Texas with a population of less than 750,000. Road service is minimal, connecting only some of the major cities or attractions. There’s a huge need for communication service and little desire on the part of those who provide the service, when the recipients are very small in number and can only be reached by bush pilots.

Alex Hills arrived in Alaska in 1972 looking for adventure by accepting the challenge to lead a team to install the first VHF phones in Alaska’s remote villages. There were some shortwave radios for communication, but the signals were affect by the aurora borealis, a frequent occurrence at that latitude. Each phone installed would be shared by the entire village.  

Hills’ book is alive with Alaska, which tells the telecommunications story but personalizes it to Alaska as he describes caring for planes in -50° weather, serving as a landing light, introducing Alaska Natives (e.g., Maryann Sundown, dancing diva of Scammon Bay, and her mosquito dance). 

My favorite was the tale from Little Diomede where the winds were at 50 mph and the installation was postponed until the winds stopped. Hills asked the village chief, James Iyapanna, when the wind would stop only to be told, “Wind never stop.”  Not being adept at running around on roof tops in such wind, the natives, who had no problem with the wind, helped install the antenna when the wind slowed a little.

Hills eventually moved from his work connecting phones to broadcasting at KOTZ in Kotzebue. In time the need for use of improved technology, satellite communication systems for remote villages and the installation of small satellite earth stations for television, would make phone and television service available to each home. That improvement came with significant impediments, which Hills was helpful in overcoming. The corporate and political aspects of connecting not only villages but also individual homes in ways that satisfied the customers in villages is another part of this interesting story.

Eventually radio broadcast, television broadcast, full phone and two-way communication services reached all native villages, though internet service remains slow to take hold. As Hills puts it, the internet connection may be another book.  

Finding Alaska’s Villages and Connecting Them is exceptionally well written, organized and presented. I highly recommend this book as part of the telecommunications and Alaska studies sections in both community and academic American History collections. Also available in e-book form, 9781457551703, $9.99. 

Finding Alaska’s Villages and Connecting Them
By Alex Hills
4011 Vincennes Road
Indianapolis, IN 46268
9781457551109, $19.95, PB, 174pp.