Broadband task force’s first job: What internet access does Idaho have?

Sharon Fisher//May 23, 2019

Broadband task force’s first job: What internet access does Idaho have?

Sharon Fisher//May 23, 2019

photo of ammon fiber optic network
Cities such as Ammon and Emmett are rolling out their own fiber optic networks to provide broadband internet. File photo.

Gov. Brad Little has formed a task force by executive order intended to improve broadband internet access in Idaho, a goal he laid out in his January State of the State.

photo of brad little
Brad Little

“In a data-driven society, connectivity is imperative for a vital economy,” Little said in a statement. “Improved broadband infrastructure ensures both urban and rural Idaho will be connected and well-positioned to attract business and enhance our citizens’ quality of life.”

The task force is chaired by Director of Commerce Tom Kealey and has almost 40 members, including legislators, state officials, tribal members and a variety of computer and networking vendors.

Notably, the list doesn’t include representatives from cities such as Ammon and Emmett, which have created their own fiber-optic networks. Nor does it include people like Dylan Baker, broadband consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, who helps Idaho’s public libraries secure broadband internet services.

Kealey wouldn’t provide a list of deliverables or a scope of work, but said he hoped it would do something fairly rapidly over three or four months, starting with pulling together a baseline. Little said the group would meet four times before October, providing a final report in November. First, it will focus its efforts on mapping Idaho’s existing services and identifying gaps in Idaho’s broadband infrastructure, he said in the statement.

Typically, Idaho has ranked near the bottom in the U.S. in terms of broadband internet access. Kealey contended that Idaho was progressing at the same speed as most other states and wasn’t behind, citing a U.S. News and World Report ranking from January that ranked Idaho as sixth in the nation.

But those numbers are outdated, according to Diedre McPhillips, data editor. According to more recent data, as well as the methodology the publication now uses, Idaho ranks #41, she said.

“There are two metrics that factor into the ‘Best States for Internet Access,’” McPhillips said. “Broadband access, which measures the share of households in a state with a broadband internet subscription (from 2017 Census American Community Survey estimates) — Idaho is 30th. Ultra-fast internet access, which measures the share of a state population with access to internet speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second (from 2017 FCC data) — Idaho is 39th.”

Organizations such as Microsoft have criticized Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data as providing much too rosy a view of broadband internet access nationwide. The company recently did a study that looked at how much broadband usage there actually was in an area, rather than where vendors said it could be available. According to that data, about 40% of Idahoans were using broadband internet, wrote John Kahan, chief data analytics officer, in a blog post.

Another issue is a lack of granularity in terms of providing broadband internet access.

“The FCC data is based on census blocks, the smallest unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau – though in rural areas, these blocks can be quite large,” Kahan wrote. “If broadband access is delivered to a single customer in that block, the entire block is counted as having service. We must be able to count those within the census block who are unserved.”

Michael Mattmiller, director of government affairs for Microsoft, is listed as a member of the broadband task force.

That said, Kealey said he has done a lot of outreach visits since his term as commerce director began on Jan. 7. He noted that he always asks city leaders and companies about their broadband internet access.

“Those surveys tended to show there was very good coverage in towns,” and ranches, farms and rural areas had internet through satellite technology, he said. In addition, some rural telephone companies provide high-speed fiber-optic support, he said.

“I read that we were ranked 47, and I couldn’t figure it out, because our field was telling us so much different,” Kealey said. “I don’t know that we’re 6, but I don’t know that we’re 47.”