Legislature passes, Little signs Broadband funding bill

Idaho will now have over $124 million to build broadband capacity in some of Idaho’s hardest to reach locations. (Photo by Jason Richard via Unsplash)

BOISE —  Gov. Brad Little signed a measure on Monday that advocates said will be a record investment in reliable, affordable, accessible, and open access broadband for rural Idaho’s unserved and underserved communities.

Idaho will now have over $124 million to build broadband capacity in some of Idaho’s hardest to reach locations, ensuring Idaho can fix the digital divide once and for all, advocates said.

“We are grateful for Gov. Little, who took swift action in signing this important funding program” said Imagine Idaho Executive Director, Christina Culver. “Further we applaud the 2023 Idaho legislature’s support and the IBAB’s strategic plan and vison for the state and its people. This money is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change lives, promote competition, and ensure Idahoans can learn, work, and play no matter wherein Idaho they live, by having reliable high-speed internet.”

The $124.1 million in funding will go toward broadband infrastructure projects for local communities in Idaho as decided by the IBAB, with the support from Idaho Department of Commerce, Office of Broadband. In the coming weeks, the funds will be awarded by the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board to shovel-ready broadband infrastructure projects benefiting the unserved and underserved communities of Idaho.

These projects will allow communities to have access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet. The grants are expected to impact small businesses, schools, hospitals, citizens, and more across the state. These funds will provide grants to highly anticipated projects throughout the state and will take a major step towards serving rural communities with the same speeds and reliability of services as that of the urban areas. Imagine

As projects are awarded, open access will be a key factor in the Board’s decision making to incentivize infrastructure that will increase competition, reliability, and affordability in the area.

Imagine Idaho Foundation is an Idaho-based 501(c) (3) non-profit created in 2020. Its goal is to bring broadband infrastructure to rural Idaho.



Gov. Little planning broadband task force

photo of emmett fiber optic trench
In Emmett, fiber optic cable is installed whenever the streets are dug up. Photo courtesy of city of Emmett.

Gov. Brad Little is forming a task force to improve broadband internet access in Idaho, a goal he set out in the State of the State speech.

“The new administration is beginning work on this important issue,” said Marissa Morrison, press secretary. “The first step will be to develop a task force or working group to best determine how to proceed.”

While major metropolitan areas in Idaho, such as Boise, have some degree of high-speed internet service, some rural areas don’t have it at all, or have it at a high price. Regions ranging from McCall to Ammon to Northern Idaho have been taking the matter into their own hands.

photo of dylan baker
Dylan Baker

Citing the annual 2018 Speedtest U.S. Fixed Broadband Performance Report by Ookla, released on Dec. 12 for Q2-Q3 2018, “Idaho ranked 47th out of the 50 states for mean download speeds (with Montana, Wyoming, and Maine trailing behind us),” said Dylan Baker, broadband consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, in Boise.

photo of brad little
Brad Little

That perception hurts Idaho, Little has been telling business audiences.

“I constantly hear how the absence of adequate broadband infrastructure is a deterrent to growth and economic development,” Little said during the State of the State. “To ensure Idaho can adapt to the rapidly evolving digital world, we must actively work to improve Idaho’s broadband access, pursuing all options to increase broadband connectivity. I will work with the Legislature to ensure both rural and urban Idaho are connected and well positioned to attract and create maximum success.”

Part of the challenge is, first, figuring out just what sort of broadband access Idaho has. Available state maps date from 2014, when Idaho received a federal grant to map broadband access. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission announced in December that it would be investigating violations of rules that are leading to incorrect maps nationwide.

Little has indicated in a couple of venues that the Department of Commerce has been researching the issue, but a spokeswoman said the department wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.

“We’re still working with Gov. Little’s office on a proposal for the department’s ideas, and it’s premature to comment on anything,” said Taylor Walker, public information specialist for the department. “At this time, there is not a formal analysis document to be published or shared.”

Wyoming governor Mark Gordon also pledged in his State of the State to improve broadband access.

Last-in-the-nation broadband puts rural Idaho in a bind

A grain harvest underway in rural Idaho.
A grain harvest underway in rural Idaho. The state lags behind others in terms of the affordability, accessibility, and speed of broadband internet service, according to the Idaho Commission for Libraries. Rural areas are particularly underserved.  File photo.

CenturyLink, a telecommunications company that services much of the state, says the company will make urban areas, not rural, the focus of future broadband development in America, including Idaho, according to the company’s chief financial officer.

The company will focus its resources on improving speed in areas with the greatest population density, Sunit Patel, CFO of CenturyLink, told investors during the Citi 2018 Global TMT West Conference on January 9, according to FierceTelecom.

“Instead of focusing capital on getting broadband speeds up to 10-20 Mbps, you would focus your money more surgically on areas that have higher population densities and better socioeconomic demographics that are in coexistence with businesses and where wireless infrastructure might be needed to get a better return on capital,” Patel said, according to FierceTelecom, which covers telecommunications news. “You would focus your capital on providing much higher broadband speeds than just offering 10-20 Mbps.”

Last in the nation

photo of dylan baker
Dylan Baker

That’s great for those regions, but not necessarily great for Idaho, which has perennially lagged behind other states in price, accessibility, and speed of broadband internet. “According to content delivery network Akamai’s latest State of the Internet Report from Q1 2017, Idaho has the slowest broadband connection speeds in the nation with an average of 12.0 Mbps,” said Dylan Baker, broadband consultant for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, who helps Idaho libraries get broadband internet for patrons. “That is far less than the average speed across the country of 18.7 Mbps and less than half that of the fastest state of Delaware with an average speed of 25.2 Mbps.” And it’s particularly bad in rural areas, he said. “Outside of the larger cities, most of rural Idaho has very little access to decent broadband,” he said. “Distance and mountainous terrain are significant obstacles to providing broadband access throughout our state.”

photo of bruce patterson
Bruce Patterson

That makes it harder for Idaho to participate in the information economy. “If we believe information is the next economy, how will Idaho meaningfully participate when we’re ranked 50th in broadband connectivity in the whole country?” asked Bruce Patterson, technology director of the city of Ammon, which is rolling out its own gigabit internet service (see box). Whenever such rankings are done, “we always fall in the bottom 10 percent,” he said.

Broadband availability in Idaho. Courtesy Institute for Local Self Reliance. (Click to enlarge.)
Broadband availability in Idaho. Courtesy Institute for Local Self Reliance. (Click to enlarge.)

It isn’t even clear just how much of Idaho is served by broadband internet. The most recent state map dates from 2014, though work is underway to update the information. (See box.) CenturyLink wouldn’t say to how much of Idaho it provides with broadband service, calling it competitive information, but according to the consumer website highinternetspeed.com, CenturyLink has the capability of providing broadband service to 54.2 percent of Idaho.

Feds are here to help

That’s not to say that CenturyLink is telling rural Idaho to drop dead. CenturyLink will expand in areas such as rural Idaho when there is federal money to do so, Patel told the group. “We understand the importance of broadband connectivity and will continue to invest in bringing high-speed internet services to rural households and businesses in Idaho. We are in the process of bringing improved broadband speeds to more than 12,000 households and businesses in high-cost areas of Idaho through CenturyLink’s participation in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund II program,” said CenturyLink spokesman Mark Molzen. (“High cost” is a federal funding term for more expensive internet in rural areas, as opposed to the less expensive services available in urban areas.)

The company received more than $500 million through the FCC program in 2015 to upgrade internet services in 27 Idaho counties, ranging from $1.2 million and 1,940 locations in Idaho County to $77 for one location in Fremont County.  “We have completed broadband upgrades to more than 1,500 homes and businesses, including locations in Kamiah, Lava Hot Springs, Montpelier and New Plymouth,” Molzen said. “We are on schedule to have 60 percent of the company’s overall CAF builds completed by the end of 2018 as required by the FCC.” Other companies, such as Frontier Communications, are also using the CAF program to expand broadband internet in rural Idaho.

In addition, when a library or a school in a community is connected to high-quality broadband, the provider can often make that service more affordably available to businesses and residences throughout the community, because the initial investment in infrastructure has already been made, Baker said. “Without an initial investment of infrastructure to bring broadband into a rural community, there aren’t many other options for rural Idahoans,” he said. Also, as cellular providers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon expand their coverage areas, people may be able to use tethering on their cell phones to provide broadband internet service, Patterson said.

photo of joe bradley
Joe Bradley

Broadband internet funding programs for rural areas are also provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For example, since 2002, Idaho has been granted $11 million through the Community Connect Award, said Joe Bradley, general field representative, rural development, for the rural utilities service telecommunications program. In the past few years, however, Idaho hasn’t gotten any funding from that program, because it applies only to regions with no broadband internet whatsoever.

And even the USDA programs won’t necessarily reach every Idahoan. “Will it reach everybody? Will it reach four people in the middle of nowhere for $3 million? It’s not going to happen,” said Layne Bangerter, state director for rural development, whose house in Melba has to use a combination of satellite internet and data service through Verizon cell service. “The bottom line is we definitely have some gaps.”

Future hazy, try again later

It isn’t clear, though, how much federal investment may be available in the future. While President Donald Trump signed two presidential orders on Jan. 8 intended to improve rural broadband access by making it easier to build infrastructure on federal lands, critics pointed out that the budget he proposed in spring 2017 eliminated the $10 million Rural Utilities Service broadband grants program. “That does far more damage than any of the good his orders would present,” 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. In addition, the CAF program ends in 2020, and nothing is yet slated to take its place, according to Mark Wigfield, deputy director of the FCC’s office of media relations.

photo of layne bangerter
Layne Bangerter

On the USDA side, the availability of funding will be part of the farm bill; it expires later this year and a new one has not yet been drafted, Bangerter said. However, both President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have vowed to improve broadband internet access in rural America, he said. When he met Perdue and Anne Hazlett, who heads the rural development agencies, “the first thing they said was, “How’s broadband in Idaho?’” he said, “I’m part of that, so kids don’t have to do their homework at McDonald’s (where there’s Wi-Fi),” he said. “I want to make them have every advantage they possibly can. I’m not going to say everyone will get covered, but we’re going to improve it.”

“I don’t think it is a problem because I believe the federal government ultimately will be putting money into the rural telecommunications infrastructure,” agreed Gens Johnson, a rural telecommunications consultant who has worked on broadband internet grants in rural Idaho for more than a decade. In areas where providers like CenturyLink have declined because there is no business model, “that would be a classic case of ‘market failure’ and it’s an appropriate place for government activity,” she said.

In October, CenturyLink also requested permission from the FCC to experiment with fixed broadband wireless in the 3.4-3.7 GHz band, which could provide the next generation of telecommunications service. Fixed broadband uses a transmitter and a receiver on a home or business, rather than cabling, which makes it more suitable for rural areas. The company didn’t say in its FCC filing where or when it planned to offer the service.

photo of lieutenant governor brad little
Lt. Gov. Brad Little

“It is incredibly important for rural Idaho to have access and that we work with all stakeholders, including cities, and both existing and new utilities, to increase this access,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little. “I come from rural Idaho, where we have seen technology change our traditional industries and provide previously unimagined economic opportunities. Broadband is at the core of  efforts to grow and diversify rural communities across Idaho, creating greater opportunities for residents and leveraging their strength as a great place to live and raise a family.”

When it comes to mapping coverage, the data is spotty

Part of the problem in improving broadband internet in rural Idaho is that it isn’t clear just what parts of Idaho are still lacking broadband internet, which, according to the most recent FCC definition, consists of a minimum of 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed.

Idaho broadband access was mapped as part of the President Barack Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus program, but the LinkIdaho broadband coverage map is based on data from June 2014 and the group’s white paper on Idaho broadband dates from 2012.

The Idaho Rural Partnership has a working group that is planning to update the information, said Timothy Solomon, regional business manager for Rocky Mountain Power in Rexburg, who convened the group in response to questions about Idaho’s rural broadband coverage by Lt. Gov. Brad Little.


Assistance for the unconnected

There are programs available to support broadband internet in rural areas.

  • Federal Communications Commission Connect America Fund II, which funds 10 Mbps down/1 Mbps up broadband development; CenturyLink received $500 million under the program in 2015 and is on track to complete 60 percent of the installations by the end of 2018, as specified by the program
  • Universal Service Schools and Libraries Program, commonly known as Erate, is the federal funding mechanism that helps ensure schools and libraries can obtain high-speed internet access and telecommunications at affordable rates by offering a discount from service providers
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Connect Grants, for rural areas that lack any broadband of at least 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up; Idaho received grants through this program from 2002-2009 but few areas now qualify because even cell data service counts.
  • Farm Bill Broadband Loans & Loan Guarantee
  • Telecommunications Infrastructure Loans & Loan Guarantees
  • Education Opportunity Resource Act, an Idaho state program providing funding for libraries and schools


Choosing do-it-yourself broadband

Some small Idaho cities aren’t waiting for big providers to give them broadband internet. They’re doing it on their own.

Ammon system network administrator Ty Ashcraft inspects the city’s fiber optic system. File photo.
Ammon system network administrator Ty Ashcraft with the city’s fiber optic system in 2016. If Ammon had waited for commercial broadband service, says Bruce Patterson, the city’s technology director, “we would be one of the last served,” he said.  File photo.

In Ammon, with a population of around 14,000, the city has been providing internet service to some citizens since December 2016, with 260 homes to be wired by February and 60 to 70 of the city’s business addresses using the city’s fiber network today, said Bruce Patterson, technology director.

If Ammon had waited for the commercial sector to give it internet service, “we would be one of the last served,” he said.

Emmett is in its second year of the process of installing a fiber-optic backbone by installing cabling in conduit whenever a street is opened up for road restoration or water main repair, said Mike Knittel, systems administrator for the city. “The conduit is the cheap part,” he said. “Construction is the expensive thing.”

Exactly what services the city will provide with its fiber-optic cabling, he doesn’t know yet.

“We are several years behind where Ammon is currently,” he acknowledged.

Not every rural area is as lucky. In 21 states, cities are forbidden by law from setting up their own municipal broadband systems, because it is considered to be the government competing with private industry, even when private industry isn’t offering broadband internet service.

While the FCC voted to block such laws in 2015, a federal appeals court said in 2016 that the FCC didn’t have that power.

In some states, such as Colorado, cities can vote to support municipal broadband; the city of Fort Collins voted on Jan. 2 to start such a service after voters approved it last November.

Idaho does not have such a law.

“The good news is that, in recent years, there have been no new barriers created,” 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. “People rightly recognize that we need all kinds of investment and states can’t afford to say, ‘We don’t want certain kinds of investment.’”


To draw business, Emmett hooks up to fiber-optic broadband

Downtown Emmett. Photo courtesy of BarbaraHuguenin of Historic Downtown Emmett.
Downtown Emmett. Photo courtesy of Barbara
Huguenin of Historic Downtown Emmett.

Emmett started installing fiber optic cable six months ago to link all city facilities with broadband services. Eventually the southwestern Idaho city plans to extend fiber optic into the community and use the technology to recruit high-tech businesses.

Emmett looks to join Ammon, the eastern Idaho city that is one of only 455 U.S. cities with publicly owned fiber optics available. Fiber optic allows much faster – even limitless – broadband service, said Mike Knittel, Emmett’s systems administrator.

Emmett Mayor Gordon Petrie
Emmett Mayor Gordon Petrie

“Business in the 21st century is driven by broadband,” Emmett Mayor Gordon Petrie said. “Idaho is one of the least connected states in the union. We intend to change that by making Emmett one of the most connected communities in Idaho. We’ll have the infrastructure to support high-tech business.”

Emmett so far has installed fiber optic cable to a few downtown blocks to link City Hall, the Public Safety Building, Emmett City Park (which now has free wi-fi) and the water tower. Public works will be hooked up in a few weeks, and within nine months fiber optic should reach the fire department and library.

The park and water tower were wired through existing conduit and the fire department and library cable installation will be paired with scheduled water line work in the next nine months. Knittel wants to time all the fiber-optic installation with other utility digs.

Mike Knittel
Mike Knittel

Over the next five years, Knittel wants to encircle the city of 6,500 residents with fiber optic, always keeping in mind the potential for the public and high-tech business as customers of the municipal service.

“A ring is what is necessary to attract these companies,” Knittel said.

Emmett leaders visited Ammon for fiber optic insights. That eastern Idaho city’s municipally owned fiber optic system is viewed as one of the nation’s most technologically advanced.