Technology touches every part of our lives and, with technology, comes the need for reliable broadband access. Access to the internet has become nearly as important as access to clean drinking water, power for your home and roads. In fact, access to broadband is so important that a U.S. Court of Appeals recently decided that high-speed internet service can be defined as a public utility. In parts of my district in North Idaho, broadband access may be one of the most important utilities.
During the 2019 interim, Governor Brad Little established the Idaho Broadband Task Force to come up with recommendations on how we can ensure that all Idahoans have access to high-speed internet. Although we had limited data, we started by identifying which parts of the state have reliable broadband and which places do not. Overwhelmingly, North Central Idaho is the most underserved part of the state. As one of the Senators representing this area, I am gravely concerned how this will impact northern Idahoans and the prosperity of the state. These underserved areas of the state are at risk of losing some of their most important services and equipment.
Broadband access is necessary for public safety, education, equipment operations, and so much more. Schools need internet for students to access the most cutting-edge educational tools. Hospitals need broadband access for much of their lifesaving equipment to work. Libraries need their computers to have internet so that Idahoans can use them to fill out job applications, check their email, or apply for social services. People will not relocate to and communities will not grow without real broadband access. Even farmers are using internet access to operate drones that help to fertilize their crops and diagnose issues with plants. In modern society, broadband access is necessary for Idahoans to be safe and successful. Without reliable internet access, citizens in underserved areas are going to fall behind in health, academics, employment, and numerous other areas.
The Task Force made numerous recommendations to the Governor but among the most important is to improve the deployment efficiency by formalizing the “dig once and hang once” policies. We have to create a way for various state and county agencies to come together on broadband projects. Idaho should start by having a statewide construction registry for all of our infrastructure projects. Local communities, the Idaho Department of Transportation, County Highway Districts, and private companies would all be able to coordinate on the most efficient construction of cost-competitive, reliable broadband services.
The broadband report also highlighted the “DIGB2” project in North Central Idaho as an important but unfunded project. DIGB2 originally started as a public safety and government connectivity project among the five North Central Idaho counties but its vision has expanded to be an open access broadband backbone across that region. This broader vision to include both government and public access will drive the cost down for everyone and bootstrap better service for our rural residents. I will work to find a way to move forward on this project.
Closing the broadband gap in Idaho is a complicated task with many expensive technologies interacting and a lack of state funding sources. Many pioneering entrepreneurs found ways to get service to much of the state, but rural Idaho is in danger of being left behind. Governor Little has already shown that he is committed to providing a pathway for broadband access to every citizen in Idaho and now it is up to the legislature to take action. Once the recommendations are finalized, we will have the blueprints for the future of internet access in Idaho. The Task Force worked for several months to come up with a plan to make sure that all Idahoans have access to what has become an important public utility.
Written by Sen. David Nelson, a Democrat from Moscow.