Recommendations to improve broadband service for the Gem State may start with work here in North Central Idaho.
That was one of the recommendations reported to Governor Brad Little late last month from the Idaho Broadband Task Force, assembled earlier this year, which included Dist. 7 Senator Carl Crabtree. Little convened the task force to review the issue and provide solutions to improve connectivity for businesses and communities across the state.
The task force’s recommendations include updating the state’s broadband plan for maximizing federal funds, establishing a state broadband office, formalizing “dig once and hang once” policies for substantially lowering investment costs, and some specific calls to action in some of the most underserved rural areas. Ongoing regional activities are also planned for the near term.
Little will review the recommendations for those to be included in his budget and policy recommendations for the 2020 legislative session.
“We’re the worst in the state. We need to fix it, and we need to start with that,” Senator Crabtree said. Emphasizing that, he explained an online map with the Idaho Department of Commerce displays broadband service levels across the state, and the worst area, “it would be like drawing a circle around our area. It encompasses almost 100 percent of District 7.”
“One recommendation was to make that the low-hanging fruit,” he continued, “and let’s start with that.”
Before detailing recommendations, Crabtree explained why improving broadband matters, especially for rural Idaho residents.
“In particular, this area is needing Internet to prove safety for its citizens, provide business for its people and provide education for its kids,” he said. “Right now, we’re not able to compete in any of these areas with urban Idaho. We’re the worst, and that has to change.”
One recommended improvement is providing a physical broadband connection between Riggins and Grangeville to provide redundancy. So, he explained, in the event that service is cut off coming in from one direction, another line will maintain connection. Another is developing a comprehensive map of the state’s fiber optic cable network, as this will be the continued media of choice for dependable service.
“We need to find out where this is so we can communicate a little better about solving these connectivity problems,” Crabtree said. Currently, the state has no idea of the extend of the fiber out there, and in some areas there are bundles laid out that are not connected. “Well, that’s unacceptable,” he said.
Another recommendation is the state needs to provide the infrastructure for broadband, specifically conduit, as it does for utilities such as electricity, in public road right of ways.
“We’re used to doing that with utilities, but we don’t do that with broadband,” he said, “and apparently, some of the courts recently decided that broadband is a utility, and that makes a lot of difference.” If it is a utility, he continued, then it should be provided for in road projects. Case in point, the estimated $40 million Culdesac Canyon work on U.S. Highway 95: “There is no conduit being laid in the roadbed, as an example of what is wrong,” he said.
Regarding conduit, Crabtree clarified this is the state planning ahead for present and future needs in providing infrastructure for installing broadband, of which should be the responsibility of private enterprise.
“We want to keep this industry-driven,” he said, and noted most of the task force was comprised of those representing private enterprise interests. “But we need to have better coordination on this issue than we have had, by a bunch.”
The broadband task force is comprised of Internet service providers, satellite providers, cellular providers, and other industry experts along with university, tribal, legislative, state, county and municipal representatives.
"Broadband connectivity and high-speed Internet are strategic and economic priorities for Idaho," Idaho Department of Commerce Director Tom Kealey said. "Our task force developed meaningful recommendations for Governor Little that will dramatically improve connectivity and service levels for communities, businesses and citizens across all of Idaho. We thank all task force members and those interested parties across Idaho who contributed to the recommendations for the governor.”
Crabtree reiterated recommendations will be part of the governor’s budget, which will go before the state legislature’s joint finance-appropriations committee, of which he is a member.
“I really look forward to what we can get done here, what we must get done, in terms of broadband for rural Idaho,” he said.