The most expensive part of installing fiber optic cabling to provide high-speed broadband internet to a community is the hole. Because entities such as roads, utilities and irrigation districts regularly dig up the ground anyway, some people are calling for a “dig once” policy to make installing cable easier and cheaper.
Such a policy would call for crews to lay fiber optic cabling, or a conduit to hold such cabling later, whenever the ground was dug up for another purpose. Even if a community didn’t need fiber optic cabling yet, a “dig once” policy would mean that it would be there when they were ready.
Idaho doesn’t have a statewide policy, but increasingly people are talking about it. While there is no indication of legislation in the works for the 2019 session, it might be brought in the future. Lieutenant governor and gubernatorial candidate Brad Little promoted such a policy at the develop.idaho conference on Sept. 12, and several agencies and cities report they at least try to support such a policy.
Improving Idaho’s broadband internet support is important because its internet connection speed ranks last in the nation, according to studies. Access to high-speed broadband internet is increasingly important if Idaho is going to improve its knowledge economy.
On the federal level, the omnibus appropriations act signed by President Donald Trump on March 23 includes “Mobile Now” legislation, which had been pending for the last four years, said Adam Rush, public involvement coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD). “Section 607(b) requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to promulgate regulations for broadband within the right of way,” he said. “The transportation department has not yet seen or heard as to the timing of when such regulations may be developed. The language doesn’t mandate and doesn’t require a state to adopt such regulations.”
Plus, that still leaves a lot of Idaho not covered, said Greg Green, CEO of Fatbeam, a Coeur d’Alene fiber optic company with 25 employees in 32 markets in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Nevada. While his company has partnered with ITD in a number of cases in North Idaho, he has to have one-off relationships with all the cities, counties and highway districts in his service area to leverage their excavations.
“It’s hard to manage,” he said. “I’d love to see a more unified effort across the state.”
Emmett is in its second year of creating a fiber-optic backbone by installing cabling in conduit whenever a street is opened up for road restoration or water main repair. “Our policy is an informal one,” said Mike Knittel, systems administrator. “We as department heads agree that any project that we work on will be evaluated for maximum impact when a trench is open.”
McCall, which is rebuilding a number of its downtown streets, is also planning to lay either conduit or fiber optic cabling in the process, said Michelle Groenevelt, community and economic development director. Thinking of it as a utility changes the mindset, she said. “Fiber is part of our infrastructure.”
“We do not require it for water or sewer projects,” said Matt Borud, chief marketing and innovation officer for the Department of Commerce, which funds such projects through its Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. “However, for downtown revitalization projects that replace sidewalks, we often recommend that the city install conduit for broadband.”
A federal mandate could affect CDBG programs in the future, which sometimes leverage federal funds, he added.
Where such a policy would really be useful is on the local level, said Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a 44-year-old Minneapolis nonprofit focused on community development policies.
“I don’t think the federal one will do much, and there is no evidence that any such state policies have made a difference,” he said. “Local governments can make a difference with such a policy because they are in charge of the roads that are relevant. Most of us don’t live on an interstate, so the federal policy is more or less an effort to appear to do something rather than actually make a difference. “
And some Idaho entities that dig up the ground don’t see why broadband internet should receive special treatment. “Why is it only for fiber optic?” said Bob Chandler, district manager for the Avondale Irrigation District, in Hayden. “I would guess that if I had to lay conduit for fiber companies, that the fiber companies would have to lay waterline for me when they were doing work.”