The Idaho Legislature is in session and bills are flying. And, right around the corner are the May primaries, which will determine the two parties’ candidates for governor, other statewide races, the Legislature and county offices.
I would like to suggest an issue that should be part of the mix: Should Idaho and/or local government adopt policies to boost deployment of hyper-speed Internet access?
This issue is of particular relevance given the role of the Internet today. America and Idaho’s companies from big to little market online, sell online and do business online. Social media is a powerful part of the everyday life of many, if not most, Idahoans. My daughter’s school’s web platform is the means by which she gets assignments, collaborates and submits work. Idaho Falls is currently negotiating to provide massive power to a large Internet hosting data center.
Yet, what we sometimes overlook is that Idaho is a backwater when it comes to Internet access. According to a 2017 Akamai analysis, Idaho has the lowest average Internet connection speed of all U.S. jurisdictions, less than half that of the top rated District of Columbia. That crimps our economic development efforts, harms our local businesses and hampers our residents.
In 2016, Idaho Politics Weeks did a poll that found that 78% of Idahoans thought high-speed access was very important for economic development, but 49% wanted to leave it solely to the public sector. It may be time to reconsider what role government can or should play.
One approach is for Idaho’s cities to build out a fiber optic infrastructure for local businesses and residents to tap. Essentially, they would treat fiber optic wiring the same as they do today with water, sewer, roads and power connections – an integral part of basic infrastructure. Fiber connections can offer not just high-speed Internet access today but also the next generation extremely fast gigabyte services with the potential to boost speeds far further in the future as technology advances.
Ammon, Idaho, has a model worth considering. It is in the process of building out a citywide fiber optic network for its residents and businesses. The service is optional, with those choosing to join either paying the upfront installation fee (roughly $3,000) or boosting their own local property taxes by $17 a month for 20 years to cover the installation costs. Ammon fronts the funds for installation of the fiber network.
Once installed, residents then choose a private provider for Internet service itself. So far the market is highly competitive and residents can switch services in minutes. Because of the competition the rates are very attractive for high and ultra-speed service.
What is eye-catching is how many Ammon residents are opting to pay higher local property taxes to join the fiber network. In the first area wired of 369 homes, according to the Idaho Falls Post Register, 239 signed up to be wired for fiber. That is an astounding 65% who chose to pay higher taxes for the benefit of a fiber connection. Now, in fairness, those were higher end neighborhoods, but Ammon believes it will be able replicate the penetration in even more modest areas.
The so-called “Ammon model” is attracting national interest because the community is known for its conservative politics but has residents willing to pay higher property taxes for the benefits of fiber access. Might Ammon’s approach be replicated statewide?
South of Idaho in Utah is a somewhat different model. There, multiple cities have joined a consortium called UTOPIA that is building out a fiber network to offer enhanced high speed Internet services. Some Utah cities have bonded to build out the network while others have relied on a pay-as-you-go model. But, UTOPIA, after a rocky start, is now generating profits.
Frankly, Idaho is already in the ultra-high speed Internet game with the Idaho Regional Optic Network, which provides services to the Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho’s colleges and universities, Idaho high schools and various private entities. Perhaps this system could be expanded to provide access more broadly statewide.
If Idaho were to rapidly build fiber networks statewide, it would attract national and international attention, draw business interest, boost our local economy and make our state more attractive for residents. Our reputation as a technology hub would soar from the bottom to the barrel to a far higher position.
The real issue is can and will the State of Idaho play a leadership role? The Legislature could pass legislation creating a local option to do what Ammon or UTOPIA has done or build upon the Idaho Regional Optic Network for rural and/or urban areas. Or, perhaps, there are other approaches involving private sector incentives.
But this whole issue cries out for leadership. Candidates for governor, the Legislature and local office should consider weighing in.