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Ag Sector May Have Answers for Boosting ID Internet Access

Only 17% of Idahoans have access to high-speed, fiber-optic internet. (bugarskipavle3/Adobe Stock)
Only 17% of Idahoans have access to high-speed, fiber-optic internet. (bugarskipavle3/Adobe Stock)
December 2, 2019

BOISE, Idaho – Access to the Internet is a critical part of modern life, but many Idahoans can't get connected.

Idaho ranks 43rd in connectivity, according to an analysis by the advocacy group BroadbandNow.

Todd Achilles, CEO of the broadcast company Edge Spectrum in Boise, says the state could adopt a better model for reaching underserved areas.

Achilles says the state has a light-touch regulatory environment, leaving the private sector with little competition and not much incentive to invest in hard-to-reach areas.

But Achilles maintains the state already has a framework to improve this: the agriculture industry.

He says a century of public irrigation districts and nonprofit irrigation companies proves this model works.

"Let's take that framework, let's modernize it for data packets and Internet protocol and use that to create an investment model for us to become as world class in broadband infrastructure as we are in the ag sector," he states.

Achilles calls access to broadband a fundamental infrastructure for a healthy society, and notes there are benefits for families.

For instance, high school graduation rates and middle school reading and math scores are higher, and people who are unemployed return to work faster.

Achilles says another sparsely populated state, North Dakota, also could be a model. In the 1990s, the state's telecom provider began selling off parts of its network to local co-ops and rural companies.

Achilles says that removed profit incentives and the telecom infrastructure took off. North Dakota now ranks 17th in connectivity.

"What you see now is 40% of North Dakotans have access to fiber, while only 17% of Idahoans do – even though North Dakota has nearly half the population density of Idaho,” he points out. “And so when you get those Wall Street incentives out of the mix of providing this fundamental infrastructure, local people do the right thing."

Achilles notes the city of Ammon has built out its own fiber network, providing an example of how municipalities can tackle this issue.

Gov. Brad Little's Idaho Broadband Task Force offered some recommendations last month, including establishing a state broadband office and considering funding options.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ID