Rural Idaho gets grants to improve internet speeds

Intermax was awarded grants from the Federal Communications Commission to improve internet service in these regions. Map courtesy of Intermax.

In an attempt to improve broadband internet access in Idaho’s rural areas, the federal government recently awarded four grants under two programs to Idaho companies for a total of almost $2 million.

In the first program, Idaho was awarded $1.4 million from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to provide fixed broadband and voice services. By comparison, Nevada was awarded $29 million. Nationwide, 103 bidders won $1.49 billion to more than 700,000 locations in 45 states.

Currently, Idaho’s internet connection speed ranks last in the nation, according to studies.

photo of mike kennedy
Mike Kennedy

The Phase II FCC grants are funded by the Universal Service Fund, which also pays for the Schools and Libraries Program, or E-rate, said Mike Kennedy, president of Intermax Networks, in Coeur d’Alene. Intermax received $940,000 to improve service in Idaho’s panhandle.

“We have 42 census block groups in north Idaho that we have committed to providing 25 megabit per second (Mbps) download speed in the next five years,” he said.

The first phase, in 2015, was intended for “wireline” competitors, such as CenturyLink, to build out their wire connections. CenturyLink received more than $500 million through Phase I 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.

This second phase was intended for so-called “high cost” areas.

“The areas auctioned off were mostly rural areas where it doesn’t make any sense for the incumbent carriers to build out even with a subsidy,” Kennedy said. “The FCC, to their credit, expanded their view of the project to allow non-wired companies like microwave suppliers, LTE suppliers and satellite.”

Other recipients of Phase II grants included ViaSat, a satellite Internet provider, which received $440,204 to improve service in other rural areas, and Red Spectrum Communications, which received $52,172.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that Idaho would receive almost $400,000 in a grant to improve broadband service in Pierce, part of a $97-million investment for 12 projects to improve rural broadband in 11 states. The USDA said it is making the investments through the Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program and the Community Connect Grant Program.

Inland Cellular, LLC, is receiving $389,589 to implement a fixed wireless long-term evolution (LTE) network, a type of 4G cellular network, though a microwave link to connect to Inland Cellular’s network. The system will cover 266 households and 34 businesses, providing service offerings of up to 15 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. A community center with six computer access points and Wi-Fi will be established. Free service will be offered to the Pierce City Hall, Pierce Library and the Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy, the USDA said.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted earlier this year, 58 percent of rural adults say access to high-speed internet is a problem in their local community.