Building Idaho’s Future with Broadband
Tuesday, June 13, 2023
Building Idaho’s Future with Broadband
“In a data-driven society, connectivity is imperative for a vital economy.”— Governor Brad Little (R-ID)
Since 2019, Governor Brad Little (R-ID) and the Idaho legislature have taken many steps to improve broadband access in the state. Through investment of federal and state funding, Idaho has been able to connect tens of thousands of underserved households in the state, the majority of which are in rural communities of less than 3,000 residents.
Policymakers there have primarily focused on the digital divide between urban and rural areas. Inadequate access to high-speed internet disadvantages Idahoans who choose to live in rural parts of our state. Expansion of broadband to rural Idaho is seen as critical for several reasons including economic growth, educational opportunities, business growth and increased access to telemedicine, improved public safety, and services.
A continued effort to expand access to reliable and redundant broadband infrastructure will create more employment options for Idahoans. Idaho’s Broadband Advisory Board wants citizens to have both the opportunity and access to launch online businesses, expand their customer reach, or work remotely.
The Digital Divide in Idaho
The number of unserved households in Idaho varies widely depending on the source cited. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that nearly 18 percent of households lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). Conversely, BroadbandNow and the US Census estimate the number of unserved households is closer to 100,000 (around 15 percent). Connecting Idahoans who are underserved—that is, lacking access to 100/20 Mbps service—is an even larger task, estimated by the FCC to be nearly 22 percent of Idaho households.
In 2020, the Idaho State Board of Education estimated through an informal survey that 180,000 students did not have access to a device or internet connectivity. The estimate led Gov. Little to declare August 5, 2020 “Close the Digital Divide Day” in Idaho. In the proclamation, the governor called on Idahoans to donate used laptops and
other electronic devices to help K-12 students access blended learning opportunities as they moved into the new school year.
The Idaho Broadband Task Force, the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board, and the Idaho Broadband Fund
Gov. Little established the Idaho Broadband Task Force through an executive order on May 23, 2019. The task force was comprised of government officials, internet providers, satellite providers, cellular providers, industry representatives, universities, and representatives from Tribes, counties, and cities. In addition, the task force included State Representatives Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett) and Mat Erpelding (D-Boise) as well as State Senators Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum) and Carl Crabtree (R-Grangeville). Idaho Department of Commerce Director Tom Kealey was tapped to chair the task force. Gov. Little directed the task force to come up with recommendations by November 2019 on ways the state could assist in furthering Idaho’s connectivity and speeds. The group's early efforts focused on mapping Idaho’s existing services and identifying gaps in Idaho’s broadband infrastructure as a first step towards developing a statewide broadband plan.
In November 2019, the Task Force delivered recommendations to improve Idaho's broadband plan to Gov. Little including:
- Creating an official State Broadband Plan
- Establishing a State Broadband Office
- Considering State Funding Solutions
- Improving Deployment Efficiency by Formalizing Dig Once and Hang Once Policies
In 2021, the Idaho Legislature passed House Bill 127, establishing the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board within the state's Department of Commerce. The advisory board was tasked with creating a statewide broadband plan to structure, prioritize, and disperse connectivity grants to areas of the state that are most in need. The legislation also gave the advisory board the authority to determine which broadband projects are undertaken with grant money.
By law, the advisory board includes three members of the Idaho House of Representatives appointed by the Speaker, three members of the Idaho Senate appointed by the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate, and three members of the public appointed by the governor.
The law also created the Idaho Broadband Fund to provide financial assistance in broadband infrastructure to promote equal access to economic development, public safety, telehealth, and education.
By December 2022, the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board was soliciting proposals for broadband infrastructure support. In February 2023, the board awarded $26.3 million in funding for two middle-mile broadband infrastructure projects:
- The board awarded $20 million to the Idaho Regional Optical Network (IRON) and the Intermountain Infrastructure Group (IIG) for a 198-mile public/private partnership project from Grangeville to Star. This project establishes a long-awaited north-south Idaho broadband backbone. The project will provide broadband access for commercial use, non-profits, local communities, and rural internet service providers.
- The board also awarded $6.3 million to the Port of Lewiston to connect with the IRON and IIG project. This middle-mile project will support commerce, non-profits, and economic development and stretch from Grangeville to Moscow.
Building Idaho’s Future
In 2021, Gov. Little proposed Building Idaho’s Future, a plan to invest in critical infrastructure projects, including broadband, to:
- Help develop a diverse workforce,
- Further the state's economic rebound, and
- Create a long-lasting benefit for all Idahoans.
Little's plan was to expand broadband access to rural unserved or underserved households as part of a larger economic investment of $54 million. The Idaho Legislature eventually directed $45 million toward new investments in internet connectivity for underserved rural areas to improve commerce, economic growth, and education.
"Added investments in broadband connectivity will assist with our ongoing COVID-19 response and present better opportunities for economic development in underserved parts of Idaho," said Gov. Little, recognizing the need to build Idaho’s future through investments in broadband infrastructure.
Idaho Broadband Strategic Plan
In June 2022, the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board finalized the Idaho Broadband Strategic Plan, a statewide strategic plan for structuring, prioritizing, and dispensing grants from the Idaho Broadband Fund. The plan begins with a goal of universal access to broadband in the state with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps by 2027. The guiding principles of the plan are:
- Access: Barriers to access for all Idahoans are removed ensuring that underserved and unserved locations receive broadband services.
- Affordable: Committed to affordable broadband service for Idahoans.
- Alignment: Stakeholders are committed to achieving the vision in this plan. Key decisions support the outlined long-term goals.
- Competition: Support middle mile and last mile infrastructure investments that support and build off existing infrastructure and provider networks, increase competition, efficiency, and redundancy to communities.
- Data-Driven: Plan is delivered with close attention to metrics. Data is continuously gathered and acted upon.
- Responsive: Strategic agility is deployed in the execution of this plan and regular adaptation to the rapidly changing environment occurs.
The plan includes four main recommendations:
- Create a Technical Plan: Feedback from the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board and the Office of Broadband indicates the need to create a separate technical plan that will assist with federal grant awards and identify the specific processes, tactics, and details of each strategic objective. This plan will determine how Idaho will strive to achieve the goal of connecting 100 percent of Idaho locations to high-speed broadband and how to leverage all sources of funding.
- Streamline Decision-Making: To ensure that the Advisory Board is consistent in prioritizing and awarding grants and projects, a decision-making matrix should be used.
- Broadband Funding: Considering the influx of federal dollars into the State Broadband Fund, a conversation around allocation for each grant fund should be had. In addition, an ongoing source of funding should be identified.
- Clarify Reporting Structure: There needs to be clarity around reporting structure, and legislative and executive functions of this plan. Write an annual operating plan.
In January 2023, Gov. Little proposed his Idaho First plan. His subsequent budget led to the Idaho Legislature leveraging $225 million in federal funding to improve broadband infrastructure throughout the state. The Idaho Broadband Advisory Board will oversee the distribution of funds to ensure all corners of the state can have fast, reliable broadband.
Federal Support for Broadband in Idaho
In 2020, the Idaho Department of Commerce awarded $48.9 million in CARES Act funding for 102 projects across the state that support improved broadband infrastructure, equipment, and services. The grants aimed to fund broadband connectivity for more than 43,000 underserved households, the majority of which are in rural communities of less than 3,000 residents. Public safety and local government entities received 23 of the 102 grants awarded.
According to program guidelines, projects would not be reimbursed unless they were completed and operational by December 31, 2021.
One of Idaho's most underserved areas is Lewis County, where, prior to the Idaho Broadband Grant Program, only 22 percent of residents had access to high-speed internet. With the help of AirBridge Broadband, 16 wireless sites were improved through this grant in underserved communities throughout Lewis County including Winchester, Craigmont, Reubens, Nezperce and Kamiah impacting more than 1,000 households (which is approximately 64 percent of all households in the county). David McKnight, co-owner of AirBridge Broadband, said the grant has not just improved the broadband in the county but also opened a wide array of opportunities for the community. From farmers being able to better monitor their crops to students and adults being able to learn and work remotely, the impacts of the project are vast and continue to grow.
Capital Projects Fund
Idaho is using $120 million—93 percent of its Capital Projects Fund allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act—to establish a competitive grant program, the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board (IBAB) Broadband Infrastructure Grant – CPF (BIG-CPF). The program is designed to build reliable broadband infrastructure to areas lacking access to internet with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps. Building off previous CARES Act investments in broadband, Idaho will prioritize fiber investments aiming to connect the greatest number of households to high-speed internet. Supported networks will provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps upon project completion. And network operators will participate in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program, meaning qualifying low-income families will receive $30 per month discounts on their broadband service. Idaho estimates that this investment will help connect 35,000 locations—23 percent of unserved locales in the state.
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program
Two applicants from Idaho were awarded Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants:
- With a grant award of $1.5 million, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will install fiber and wireless to directly connect 927 unserved Tribal households, 35 unserved Tribal businesses, and 22 unserved Tribal community anchor institutions with a minimum of 30 Mbps/5 Mbps and up to 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) qualifying broadband service. The project will provide affordable, high-speed, reliable, and future-proofed Internet access to Tribal households with a minimum speed of 30/5 Mbps, to businesses with an average speed of 100 Mbps, and to anchor institutions with an average speed of 1 Gbps.
- The Shoshone Bannock Tribes were awarded nearly $22.5 million to install middle-mile and last-mile fiber and last-mile fixed-wireless directly connecting 408 unserved Native American households with fiber-to-the-home 100/100 Mbps service.
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
In November 2022, the NTIA awarded Idaho nearly $5 million to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet throughout the state. From the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, Idaho received nearly $4.4 million for:
- Identification of unserved and underserved locations;
- Outreach to diverse stakeholders across all entities and geographies within the state;
- Increase capacity to implement BEAD grants and build infrastructure throughout Idaho;
- Build a broadband infrastructure map for the State of Idaho;
- Asset mapping across the Eligible Entity to catalog broadband adoption, affordability, access, and deployment activities;
- Surveys of unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to adoption; and
- Efforts to support local coordination including capacity building at the local and regional levels.
In August, Idaho will finalize a five-year plan to use BEAD support to connect all unserved locations in the state.
Idaho also received $564,706 from the NTIA's State Digital Equity Planning Grant Program for:
- Development of a Statewide Digital Access Plan;
- Community and stakeholder engagement; and
- Data collection and analysis of barriers to high-speed Internet adoption.
The state's digital equity plan is due in November 2023.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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