BOISE – Rural North Idaho is the worst-served part of the state when it comes to broadband Internet service, a legislative committee learned Friday.
“Where we’re struggling probably the most is in the Panhandle,” said Mike Field, broadband coordinator for the LinkIdaho project, a grant-funded program looking to boost high-speed Internet access across the state.
Inadequate access creates barriers in attracting companies to the region, as well as in delivering education, health care and other services.
Field said Idaho’s urban areas have lots of providers and prices are “pretty competitive.” But, he said, “We do see a problem once we get outside our smaller rural communities. … You get past 3 miles, then it gets pretty iffy.”
Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, co-chairman of the Idaho Legislature’s interim committee on energy, environment and technology, said, “I’ve got a friend that’s 6 miles out of town. With his Internet service, he can’t download any video or high-tech information.”
The LinkIdaho project is planning a “broadband summit” in Boise on Oct. 22, offering sessions on everything from the pros and cons of cities becoming broadband providers to broadband as an economic development tool. The project also helped coordinate a recent survey in Shoshone County that found that 88 percent of businesses said Internet connection was critical, but 62 percent said their current service is inadequate. Among Shoshone County residents, 72 percent said their Internet service wasn’t doing the job.
“There is a connection between broadband and prosperity,” said Vince Rinaldi, executive director of the Silver Valley Economic Development Corp. “There is a correlation. We want to be part of that.”
Bill Gillis, a Spokane consultant to the LinkIdaho project, told the legislative panel that the cost to connect every Idaho household to broadband service at current standards would be $173 million for construction plus $41 million a year for operations.
“It’s not inexpensive, but remember, your providers are investing in Idaho all the time,” he said.
Field said Idaho has “made a decision that the private sector will deliver broadband for us.” That contrasts with Vermont, for example, which secured more than $200 million in federal grants to extend service statewide.
Idaho’s gotten about $10 million in federal grants in recent years for broadband projects, including LinkIdaho, which has received $4.4 million in federal stimulus funds since 2009; the Idaho Commission for Libraries, which has upgraded service to the 55 libraries in Idaho that needed it most; and projects in Moscow and on the Nez Perce Reservation that Field said have significantly improved service in north-central Idaho.
Eskridge said he’d like to see the state get more involved in improving broadband service. “Obviously, broadband capability and access is a big issue in our district in terms of economic development,” he said, “and I see this as a big issue for the whole state.”