High-speed internet, or broadband internet, once seen as a luxury service, is now understood to be a critical utility that brings equitable economic opportunity to many.
Broadband not only brings social connectivity, but can raise property values, increase job opportunities, boost education access and expand health outcomes through telehealth.  However, the difference in access between urban and rural America continues and was especially apparent once the pandemic set in.
This gap, known as the “digital divide,” is a gap rural America is all too familiar with. From 2017-2021, rural households in Idaho have seen smaller percentage increases in internet subscriptions (1.3% fewer) and computing devices (0.5% fewer) than urban households. With the pandemic highlighting this issue to a broader audience, lawmakers are working on closing this gap, increasing economic opportunities for rural households.
Broadband’s economic impacts / benefits
As the world becomes more digitized, broadband internet has become one of the most critical utilities and services. The Federal Communications Commission classifies broadband internet access as an “always-on connection that provides at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.”  Internet connection does not just bring social connection and entertainment but brings access to important services to rural Idahoans:
- Telehealth Services: Rural citizens are more likely than urban citizens to die prematurely from five of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke and unintentional injury, according to the Center for Disease Control. Telehealth services keep rural citizens more connected to medical care regardless of distance .
- Job Opportunities and Employment: Increasing wired broadband availability and adoption has led to increased employment rates in rural America . Increased broadband access also unlocks skilled labor in rural areas, more important than ever with the current — especially skilled — labor shortage.
- Developing Community: Access to broadband can increase property values and attract and retain the population of shrinking and aging rural America .
- Business and Economic Development: Access to broadband will streamline communication, create increased payment options, expand customer base and simplify hiring both for businesses and job seekers. Opening a community to e-commerce will cheapen existing supply chains and provide savings to consumers with increased competition .
- Increased Access to Education: High speed internet access opens educational opportunities not only for children, but also adults as they transition careers and upskill to increase their income .
The Digital Divide
The digital divide index is one of our strongest indicators in understanding the digital divide. The index captures a wide array of populations disproportionally left behind regarding digital access (individuals with disabilities, rural households, seniors, veterans and non-English speaking populations). The index also captures and wraps up a diversity index and a crime index that accounts for other populations that may have trouble accessing and using the internet.
Below is a digital divide map of Idaho broken down by census block. A score of 0 is the lowest divide, with a score of 100 being the highest divide.
Source: Idaho ITS
Broadband implementation challenges
There are numerous advantages to providing broadband for all, but that goal has many challenges. A barrier that creates other barriers is the lack of quality broadband data on the national level. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has developed a broadband map broken down by census blocks, showing internet speeds by geography and areas that do not have access.
However, FCC reporting allows internet service providers (ISPs) to declare an entire census block as covered even if they are able to serve only a single household in that census block. This leads to an underestimation of the issue and an overestimation of coverage on the national level .
Even without the difficulties reporting and developing broadband data, systemic barriers still help enforce the digital divide. Broadband internet (25-99 Mbps) has seen a 14% monthly average price decline of $8.80 from 2016-2022 .In the developed world, however, the United States still has some of the most expensive rates for broadband internet. According to Broadband Now, only 34.4% of Idahoans have access to “low-priced broadband,” defined as $60/month or less . Even with improvements to speed and accessibility, if service is not affordable it will not do much to impact the digital divide.
Education is another key component of the digital divide. Even if a household has access and the means to afford broadband, they will be left behind if they do not know how to use their devices properly. Certain populations, such as the older Idahoans 60+ (22.6% of Idaho’s population), those with disabilities s(13.9%), rural or ethnic minorities (18.4%), those with a language barrier (13.5%) and the rural population (41.8%) are all examples of populations that may need computer training/literacy courses .
Broadband implementation and expansion covers many different industries, making it difficult to track broadband specific occupations. Fortunately, Lightcast can assist in getting a broad picture.
Telecommunication line installers and repairers, along with computer network architects have both seen sustained growth from 2001-2019 where the other occupation was observed in all occupations (the ones represented in the graph), with the largest growth in telecommunications line installers and repairers, 22% growth from 2019-2023.
With the pandemic highlighting gaps in service and the importance of access, many occupations across the industry have strong projected growth as service and access is expanded to rural populations to close the digital divide.
Source: Lightcast Economic Modeling
Programs, funding and additional resources
Like many states, Idaho faces obstacles in the way of affordable and accessible broadband for all. However, historical funding and programs, along with community support and enthusiasm all exist for broadband accessibility.
Current and future broadband funds and resources:
- Idaho Broadband Grant Fund – $8.7M
- In January 2023, the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board obligated $26.3 million to fund two middle-mile projects covering 300 miles. In northern Idaho there was a $20 million project from Grangeville to Star. There was also a $6.3 million port of Lewiston project connecting Moscow to Grangeville.
- Idaho Broadband Advisory Board Announces Funding Awards – Idaho Commerce
- Capital Projects Fund (CPF) – $124.1M
- The CPF addresses challenges in rural America by ensuring all communities have access to modern broadband infrastructure. This funding comes from the state allocation of the American Rescue Plan.
- Broadband Equity, Access, and Development (BEAD) Program – $150M
- The FY24 commerce budget includes $100 million, plus a $50 million roll over from FY23 via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
- Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program | BroadbandUSA (doc.gov)
- FCC Affordable Connectivity Program
- Provides a monthly discount on internet service for qualifying households and one device discount on a laptop, tablet or desktop computer.
- Home – ACP – Universal Service Administrative Company (affordableconnectivity.gov)
- Link Up Idaho
- Aims to gather information about connectivity challenges in Idaho’s communities and to improve the state’s map of broadband coverage.
- Link up Idaho (arcgis.com)
- A national resource that can provide broadband reports at the community level. Data & Mapping | BroadbandUSA (doc.gov)
- University of Idaho’s Digital Economy Program
- Provides training for basic digital skills, remote work training and ecommerce trainings.
- Digital Economy Program | University of Idaho Extension (uidaho.edu)
- Idaho Commission for Libraries
- Produces the “Idaho Digital Access Workbook” which has myriad resources to connect you to programs and organizations.
- Digital Access for All Idahoans Plan – Idaho Commission for Libraries
Seth.Harrington@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 735-2500 ext. 3062
- Digital prosperity: How broadband can deliver health and equity to all communities (brookings.edu)
- 2015 Broadband Progress Report | Federal Communications Commission (fcc.gov)
- Telehealth in Rural Communities | CDC
- How Broadband Adoption and Availability Impacted Rural Employment During COVID-19, DM602 | MU Extension (missouri.edu)
- Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure | Federal Communications Commission (fcc.gov)
- Pricing decisions with reference price effect and risk preference customers – Zhao – 2021 – International Transactions in Operational Research – Wiley Online Library.pdf
- BroadbandNow Estimates Availability for all 50 States; Confirms that More than 42 Million Americans Do Not Have Access to Broadband – BroadbandNow
- Broadband Pricing Changes: 2016 to 2022 – BroadbandNow
- Internet Access in Idaho: Stats & Figures (broadbandnow.com)
- National Telecommunications and Information Administration (census.gov)
This project is 100% funded by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of an Employment and Training Administration award totaling $695,785.