Telecom & Tech
Innovation and Internet
Forging new connections mitigated the effects of the pandemic on businesses—at least those with access
By Isaac Stone Simonelli

n an age where private businesses are sending people to outer space, the technology that makes the difference for rural entrepreneurs is something many Americans take for granted: stable access to the internet. And the COVID-19 pandemic has forced even businesses in urban centers, such as Anchorage and Fairbanks, to step up their digital presence and embrace processes or tools already utilized by companies in the Lower 48.

“Small businesses were really challenged on the front end,” says Jeffrey Salzer, the Alaska deputy district director at the Small Business Administration (SBA). “Especially those that were lagging in technology.”

When the pandemic hit nearly two years ago, businesses were scrambling, particularly small “main street” businesses that had very limited digital presences, despite being on Alaska’s fiber network, Salzer explains.

Adapt and Overcome
One of the biggest technological changes for businesses was focused on point-of-sale. This was perhaps most prominently seen in the restaurant industry.

“A large majority of them before the pandemic weren’t really optimized for online ordering, takeout, and delivery,” explains Jon Bittner, the executive director of the Alaska Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “They weren’t using the delivery services: the third-party services like DoorDash and things like that.”

Businesses that had relied on walk-in customers suddenly found themselves with a point-of-sale system that simply didn’t work during the pandemic.

“It definitely forced more of those businesses to engage with their customers on a meaningful level digitally, as opposed to before where it had been mostly in person or through the phone,” Bittner says.

Those restaurants had to transition and figure out how to work with other partners to integrate this new point-of-sale technology, explains Salzer.

“Technology has kind of become what we’ve all gone to, to cope with the changes and how we do our jobs,” Salzer says.

Even the SBA wasn’t immune from the need to adapt and change to meet the needs of the businesses that relied on it. The administration was forced to find new ways to help businesses overcome technological barriers just to access funds for the Paycheck Protection Program, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

“You needed access to technology to do that,” Salzer says.

The SBA, along with SBDC, the Veterans Outreach Center, the Women’s Business Centers, and other partners, exerted a lot of energy to make sure that the information about resources made available by Congress was getting out to the people who really needed it, says Steve Brown, the Alaska district director at the SBA.

Face to Virtual Face
Another industry segment that saw a rapid adoption of technology was mental health services, says Bittner. The need for social distancing and the increased need for such services created an environment that drove change.

“They have discovered that it’s actually quite feasible to do that through a video link. And I think that that’s going to allow them to offer a lot more flexibility in their services and cover a larger geographic area,” Bittner says.

Alaska is well known for being a leader in telemedicine because of the need to provide services to rural communities; however, Bittner says that the pandemic created a need for a rapid, almost industry-wide implementation of telemedicine offerings.

“So, instead of sort of doing the slow and steady, we just sort of had to flip a switch,” Bittner says. “I think that in particular worked very well.”

Running in tandem with changes in the Lower 48, how meetings are conducted in Alaska has also evolved because of the technological solutions to pandemic-era problems.

“I suspect that there will be a lot more discussion in businesses of all stripes about replacing in-person meetings with virtual meetings or other digital options,” Bittner says. “We’re seeing a lot more people talking about the Asana workflow program and Slack rooms.”

“If you are a business of any size that wants to grow, eventually you reach maximum capacity for your area and you have to find ways to expand beyond your sort of immediate location. And the best way to do that is digitally.”
John Bittner
Executive Director
Alaska Small Business Development Center
Video conferencing has also become a mainstay of business operations.

“Zoom is pretty well ubiquitous,” says Vickie Kelly, the Alaska business development manager for Leonardo DRS, which specializes in offering broadband services, as well as technology support, cybersecurity, and network operations. As part of its core operations, the company operates fiber optic, microwave, and satellite networks, including a 600-mile microwave network from Fairbanks to Allakaket.

“It seems like Zoom has really cornered the market,” Kelly says, though she does see some use of Microsoft Teams. “With the pandemic hitting so quickly, and people having to figure out a way to interact with their employees and with their customers, I think Zoom really rose to the top because it was free.”

Additionally, Zoom developers created the hooks necessary to automatically import meetings into Outlook and other calendar services—keeping workflow straightforward for less tech-savvy business owners.

“We’re also seeing a lot more flexible work arrangements, even as people start transitioning back to in-person workspaces,” Bittner says.

Part of the reason some companies are continuing to create a blended in-person, at-the-office environment is not just because of the continued presence of the novel coronavirus—it’s because both companies and employees have gotten used to the arrangement, says Bittner.

“For the most part, we’ve heard that efficiency is not a real problem and employee morale tends to go up,” Bittner says. “I think that it’s going to be particularly impactful in Alaska. One of the reasons being that we’re a small population state spread out over a very large area.”

The more flexible work arrangement allows smaller communities to have access to a much larger labor pool than they normally would, Bittner explains. He points out that prior to the pandemic there were often attitudes that if a person had an office job, they needed to come into the office to get it done.

“The internet is the great equalizer,” Salzer says, noting that those in Alaska who do have access to the fiber network can do anything anyone in one of the financial centers in the world can do. “One of the great things that we’ve learned about during the pandemic is we’re able to do what we do… [mostly] untethered from a physical location. And we’re seeing that with large corporations and small businesses alike.”

Even before the pandemic, there was talk in Alaska that recent advancements in technology allowed people who had jobs in the Lower 48 or elsewhere to base themselves in the Last Frontier. Though the possibility existed, it was rather unusual for people to take advantage of it—even at the height of the gig economy, Bittner explains.

“But now we’ve moved away from only high-tech startups [thinking this way] and now it’s everybody,” Bittner says. “We’re talking about counselors; we’re talking about lawyers; we’re talking about architects and general office workers. They are all very familiar and savvy with working remotely.”

Reaching Eyeballs
Social media has also created avenues for direct sales to consumers that were less understood and rarely put into practice a decade ago. In Alaska, entrepreneurs can create Facebook pages, using them as a stand-in for a website while also making sales through the Facebook marketplace.

“And it’s not just for the individuals selling individual services, but you’ve also got businesses that are brand new and brought from the ground up that sell specifically online,” Salzer says. “Folks that were able to sell online and keep their products moving and their inventory moving really made the difference for a lot of folks—I know it made a difference for the consumers.”

Digital advertising, already a mainstay for many companies, became important for even small Alaskan-owned businesses.

“As the pandemic persists, people are more isolated than normal—they’re also not going out as much as normal, they’re not engaging in the day-to-day sort of Brownian motion of society, as they normally would before the pandemic,” Bittner explains. “Largely speaking, they’re online. Everybody is binge watching Netflix and checking social media and trying to stay connected through digital means.”

As marketing goes, businesses want to put their name, branding, and deals where their consumers are absorbing information. This can be particularly important for rural entrepreneurs, though even those growing their businesses in city centers will most likely start feeling their geographical constraints if they don’t.

“We’re spread out over a large geographic area. Most of our populations are fairly small,” Bittner says. “If you are a business of any size that wants to grow, eventually you reach maximum capacity for your area and you have to find ways to expand beyond your sort of immediate location. And the best way to do that is digitally.”

Know What You’re Doing
Because an entrepreneur no longer needs to have an advanced degree in programming to reach digital markets, artists and creatives operating in rural communities can support themselves by accessing customers all over the world, Bittner says.

“Anybody that really, theoretically, wants to sell something online can,” Bittner says. “But you have to know what you’re doing, and you have to understand what doesn’t work. And that’s really the learning curve that we as a state should probably work on addressing.”

The SBDC provides a variety of training for Alaskan business owners. It offers everything from website design to how to utilize financial programs, such as QuickBooks.

One of the most popular trainings is how to market a business in the modern digital age, Bittner says.

The SBDC also provides training on cybersecurity issues, which Bittner says is an increasing problem as businesses adopt new technology and expand into a more digital space.

“If you can afford it, it definitely is not a bad idea to talk to a company that specializes in showing you how to protect yourself online,” Bittner says, noting there are several excellent Alaska-based companies for this. “If you’re a smaller company, maybe even just a sole proprietor, I’d highly recommend checking out some of the free online training tools and guidelines that people like the SBA and my organization, the Alaska SBDC, and others provide.”

Companies can also benefit by engaging with more cloud-based services, such as online transactional platforms, online financial processing services, and online logistic management systems.

Bittner points out that such services allow businesses to get real-time logistics, sales, and financial information, providing decision makers with the best data available.

“It is definitely going to improve your odds of being able to weather what’s coming,” Bittner says, referring to the weakened international and national supply chain.

“You’ll find that even large-scale providers, the Amazons the FedExes… they’ve all either begun to or have already developed a suite of programs and services and outreach efforts specifically to smaller businesses,” Bittner says. “I think that the reason there is that it’s sort of a feeder program.”

Bittner explains that if these corporations can engage with small businesses by providing the tools they need to optimize early on, there will be dividends paid when the businesses grow and expand.

“Rural connectivity is one of the pinch points for small businesses… I mean, cutting-edge technology for a lot of Alaska is just trying to get a good cell phone signal.”
Steve Brown
Alaska District Director
Small Business Administration
Bridging the Gap
Digital marketing, Zoom meetings, online marketing and cloud-based logistics, human resources, and financial services don’t work without at least some access to the internet.

“Rural connectivity is one of the pinch points for small businesses,” says SBA’s Brown. “This is particularly an issue in rural Interior Alaska.”

The state is focused on bridging the internet gap so more of the opportunities created through such connectivity can make it to smaller communities and rural villages, Brown says.

“I mean, cutting-edge technology for a lot of Alaska is just trying to get a good cell phone signal,” Brown says, noting that connectivity alone has created hurdles for the SBA in its efforts to get its programs and services into the hands of rural entrepreneurs.

There is a dearth of access to broadband for communities in Alaska that are not directly connected to Quintillion fiber, which runs through a handful of Alaska hubs.

“It’s when you get into the interior of Alaska where you do not have access to fiber,” Kelly says, noting exceptions, such as Fairbanks. “There’s just a real lack of sophisticated infrastructure here to really support our more remote areas. And, even when you can put that infrastructure in, the cost is high.”

Depending on providers, businesses in rural areas that can connect to broadband sometimes have to shoulder internet bills that are in the range of $600 to $800 a month, Kelly says.

“It’s not just access to the internet, it’s quality access to the internet, right? It means it has to be stable,” Kelly says.

New Connections
Depending on the type of connectivity a company has in rural Alaska, such as a geostationary satellite, it can be frustrating and even uneconomic to try to operate cloud-based business suites designed for small businesses.

“Latency really plays a significant role in cloud-based applications,” Kelly says.

Her company, Virginia-based Leonardo DRS, has implemented what it calls caching servers for some of its clients to help with this issue. This allows an application or a cloud-based solution to download information that decision makers need frequent access to and cache it locally, Kelly explains. By doing this, the service doesn’t need to connect to the internet every time it needs to find something.

The future of Alaska internet connectivity, however, will be low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, Kelly says. OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat are all providing or set to provide LEO-based internet options.

“This is awesome news for rural Alaska, because they’re going to be able to get internet at fiber speeds for a fraction of what it costs on a geostationary satellite today,” Kelly says.

Kelly warns that there will be limited bandwidth available at first, so she advises businesses to be early adopters of LEO and coordinate their needs with their providers.

With several one-time federal infrastructure cash infusions on the horizon for Alaska, Kelly says it’s going to be vital for the state to be smart with how it brings internet connectivity to rural communities.

“Over the next five years, we’re gonna see a lot of change and connectivity and pricing and availability in the state, which is good,” Kelly says, pointing toward LEO projects. “We’re lacking a lot of last mile infrastructure and a lot of money to be able to supplement the cost of what people are paying for their internet connectivity.”

Built to Last
Navigating the need for connectivity and other technological hurdles has not been easy for many businesses.

Brown points out that more than 40 percent of businesses will not be able to keep their doors open by the time the state reaches the other side of the pandemic, and a significant number of those that do won’t make it another five years.

“Some of the difficult lessons learned and adaptations that came as a result of the pandemic—we’re going to see business built on those lessons,” Brown says. “I think we’re going to see a greater adaptation and improvement on what was created through necessity.”

Bittner agrees that out of the adversity and chaos caused by the pandemic there have been innovations that will last.

“I hope that as a state… we really take the good and run with it and support it and find ways to help our businesses continue to grow. Because the more we understand the technology, the more we get engaged, the more we can access customers outside of our state or outside of our cities, the stronger our economy is going to be overall and it will benefit all of us for many years to come,” Bittner says. “And, quite frankly, we could kind of use a win right now.”