Little pushes broadband improvements to rural communities

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BOISE — Idaho’s 33rd governor, Brad Little, pushed his goals to increase economic growth throughout the state by implementing high-speed broadband connection in rural and tribal communities in his State of the State address on Monday.

“In my travels, I constantly hear how the absence of adequate broadband infrastructure is a deterrent to growth and economic development,” Little said. “The Idaho Department of Commerce spent the past year analyzing the statewide challenge of inadequate broadband.”

Little wants to find a way to reach those communities that fall short with little or no broadband availability.

Broadband is high-speed internet received from either optical copper fibers or coaxial cables buried into the ground and connected to a server. Anyone who has access to broadband can basically do anything online including checking email, streaming Netflix and scrolling through Facebook, and usually all at the same time.

Idaho’s rural and urban communities are digitally divided due to the lack of broadband infrastructure in isolated areas. The problem is that these areas aren’t populated enough or are too far away from the nearest broadband option for telecommunication companies to reside. The installments of fiber or cable wires have been impeded in these areas due to financial or location restrictions.

If there was better connectivity, there would be numerous benefits. Ranchers would be able to purchase cattle online. Tribal communities would be able to communicate data in real time. Essentially, all Idahoans would have equal access to everything that requires broadband capabilities.

According to the 2018 Broadband Progress Report by the Federal Communications Commission, Idaho has one of the worst broadband coverages in the nation. The coverage of rural areas in Idaho is reported at 68 percent (based on the 2010 Census) as of December 31, 2016. In addition, the FCC also reported that 83 percent of tribal lands don’t have any access to broadband at all.

While Idaho Legislature has made this a priority over the years and has implemented grant-funded programs such as LinkIdaho, rural and tribal communities have also worked to get the broadband access they need.

The Nez Perce Tribe’s Department of Technology Services enacted the Nez Perce Tribe Wireless program in 2009 to provide the broadband access essential for “rural and remote areas” on the reservation. According to the program’s website, the program is only functioning on grants, but will continue to expand the service until the entire Nez Perce Reservation is covered.

In addition, the FCC’s Connect America Fund awarded Idaho telecom companies CenturyLink $6.3 million and Frontier Communications $5.2 million a year for six years in order to install broadband fibers in rural areas in Idaho. However, this doesn’t mean every community in Idaho will be connected if projects aren’t completed by the program’s close in 2020.

“To ensure Idaho can adapt to the rapidly evolving digital world, we must actively work to improve Idaho’s broadband access, pursuing all options to increase broadband connectivity. I will work with the Legislature to ensure both rural and urban Idaho are connected and well-positioned to attract and create maximum success,” Little said in the State of the State.

Cheyenna McCurry is a legislative intern with the James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research in Boise, and a student in the University of Idaho School of Journalism and Mass Media.

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