Governor accepts broadband report, but plans on hold until January

Sharon Fisher//November 27, 2019

Governor accepts broadband report, but plans on hold until January

Sharon Fisher//November 27, 2019

photo of tds fiber optic network
“Dig once” policies could save money on installing internet cable. File photo

Gov. Brad Little has accepted recommendations from the broadband internet task force he created, but how many of them will be implemented will depend on how the budget shakes out.

“Governor Little is currently reviewing the recommendations and will determine which ones will be included in his budget and policy recommendations for the 2020 legislative session,” said press secretary Marissa Morrison Hyer in an email message.

Those recommendations will be issued during the State of the State speech, scheduled for Jan. 6 in the Statehouse at noon.

Task force recommendations

photo of tom kealey
Tom Kealey

The task force, created by Little earlier this year, met monthly around the state this summer. Made up of roughly 40 members, it was divided into seven subcommittees: two for rural Idaho, one for urban, one for the Idaho National Laboratory and universities, one for mapping, one for a state broadband office and one for writing the final report, based on draft reports from each subcommittees. It was chaired by Director of Commerce Tom Kealey.

Recommendations included updating the state broadband plan, establishing a state broadband office, considering state funding options and implementing “dig once” and “hang once” policies. “Dig once” policies mean that when the ground is torn up for some other reason, ranging from highways to sewers, providers look for opportunities to lay conduit or cabling at the same time, typically the most expensive part of the process. Where the data would reside and who would control it is another question.

New projects

The report also gave four examples of near-term projects, which committee members had debated during the drafting process. Specific projects could result in concrete solutions that would measurably improve broadband internet access in rural Idaho and prove that the broadband task force’s work isn’t just another government committee report that would sit on a shelf, task force members said.

On the other hand, some committee members were concerned about being too specific about projects and about their costs. One project, for example, providing connectivity for the I-90 corridor between Cataldo and the Montana border, is estimated to cost $5 million.

The next steps for Idaho Commerce are to engage Idaho legislators; establish smaller, regional working groups; focus on scoring well for federal grants and loans and focus on a comprehensive beta project in underserved North Central Idaho. That project is intended to provide fiber connections between five underserved Idaho counties: Latah, Nez Perce, Clearwater, Lewis and Idaho, as well as the Nez Perce Tribe.

What’s Idaho’s broadband like?

According to Broadband Now, a website that helps consumers find and compare Internet service providers in their area, Idaho ranks No. 43 of the states, with an average statewide speed of 26.8 Megabits per second (Mbps), with 81.2% of the population having access to 25 Mbps or faster, 79.4% having access to 100 Mbps or faster and 63.2% having access to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) broadband.

On the other hand, 307,000 people in Idaho don’t have access to at least 25 mbps, 250,000 people have access to only one provider and 107,000 people in Idaho don’t have any wired internet providers at all, the organization noted.

In fact, the percentage of the population with access to $60 wired broadband actually went down from the second to the third quarter, according to the organization.

“Five wired providers that had qualifying $60 or under plans in the prior quarter reduced their coverage in the FCC update in some areas, meaning consumers who we previously reported now no longer had access,” the organization said in an email message. “Specifically, CableOne, Idaho’s biggest wired provider, had a 4% coverage drop after the FCC update,” which affected around 40,000 Idahoans.

While CenturyLink, Idaho’s second largest wired provider, did increase its coverage and has an internet plan under $60, it documents only the download speed, not the upload speed. Without both, it does not meet the FCC’s minimum requirement for broadband internet, the organization continued.