Governor’s Task Force Makes Recommendations to Improve Idaho’s Broadband Access

Establishing a state broadband office, updating the state plan and formalizing installment policies for efficiency are several recommendations made by the Governor’s Broadband Access Task Force.

The task force, created by a Governor’s Executive Order in May, was assigned to research and offer solutions to improve broadband reliability, connectivity and service levels across Idaho.

In rural communities throughout Idaho, expanding access to broadband is a high priority for economic developers. High-speed Internet has become such a standard part of doing business that lack of access limits local businesses’ ability to expand, find employees, find suppliers, train their workers and market their products.

Tom Kealey, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, chaired the task force made up of internet service providers, satellite providers, cellular providers and other industry experts. Representatives of universities, state and local government and tribes were also included.

The group made several recommendations to improve broadband access, which they consider imperative for Idaho:

  • Establish a state broadband office to facilitate and engage in strategic planning, deliver consumer education, look for opportunities and funding sources and coordinate where Idaho can leverage existing infrastructure to reach unserved communities in the state – such as roadways and utility assets.
  • Update the state’s broadband plan, notify federal and state agencies and coordinate the state’s broadband expansion efforts;
  • Formalize the “dig and hang once” policies, which substantially lower broadband investment costs relative to the current piecemeal approach.
  • Encourage installation of trenches and broadband infrastructure during road construction projects;
  • Create a consumer tax deduction for broadband fees;
  • Ensure broadband easements are included in any state right-of-way purchase agreement; and
  • Undertake a pilot project for underserved parts of north central Idaho.

Expanding access to broadband is a high priority for economic developers, especially in rural Idaho. High-speed Internet is a standard part of doing business. A lack of access to the service limits local businesses’ ability to expand, find employees, find suppliers, train their workers and market their products.

A 2018 test by Ookla found Idaho was the fourth slowest state in the nation in a ranking of fixed-broadband download speeds. According to Broadband Now, a website that helps consumers find and compare internet service providers in their areas, 307,000 people — 21 percent of Idaho’s population – do not have access to at least 25 megabits per second, 250,000 have access to only one provider and 107,000 don’t have any wired internet providers at all.

The unavailability of broadband also influences a community’s attractiveness to potential residents and businesses. Many businesses looking to relocate place a high premium on availability of high-speed internet services. Broadband access can draw new “lone eagles” — high-skilled professionals who can work anywhere that provides high-speed internet services. Broadband also can save lives by helping rural hospitals and emergency care providers access information and improve communication. It also plays an increasingly important role in educating the future workforce.

The task force conducted four public meetings throughout the state. The group also divided into seven topical committees that met between task force meetings to bring forth specific recommendations for the governor. They included mapping, state broadband office, urban, two rural, INL/universities and final report committees. The task force issued its final report to the governor in November. The report is available at: http://commerce.idaho.gov/content/uploads/2019/11/Broadband-Taskforce-Final_v3.pdf

“Idaho’s urban areas are well served given customer density, access to capital and existing infrastructure. Idaho’s universities and the Idaho National Laboratory have adequate broadband, but should maintain their leading edge with existing resources and could serve as a catalyst for improvements to broadband technologies,” according to the task force. However, many rural areas lack reliable broadband-level speeds at an affordable price.

Using the minimum federal guidelines of broadband speed — measured as 25 mbps second for downloads and 3 mbps for uploads —  the task force analyzed gaps in the state’s broadband high-speed internet infrastructure and made recommendations based upon their findings.

The following map from the task force report shows underserved counties — ones that do not meet the minimum federal guidelines of broadband service.

“Idaho is challenged addressing unserved areas due to the state’s geography, terrain and lack of population density in many areas,” according to the report. “Available maps and data depict north central Idaho as the largest unserved area in the state. Other areas of the state may experience inconsistent speeds and service levels depending on capacity, technology, equipment and usage.” In the rural counties of Adams, Benewah, Clearwater, Idaho and Lewis counties, fewer than 35 percent of households have access to broadband, according to the Lewiston Tribune’s analysis of the report.

For more information on how well each county and city in Idaho is served, visit https://broadbandnow.com/idaho

The task force determined that recommended solutions would remain “technology neutral.” In its report the task force stated, “Due to the continuous technological advances in delivery of broadband services and Idaho’s geography challenges and communities’ unique circumstances, all technology options should be considered as solutions to improve connectivity across the state.”

The governor accepted the task force recommendations. In his State of the State Address on Jan. 6, the governor proposed establishing a state broadband office, using existing resources at the Idaho Department of Commerce.

Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984

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