Idaho will be the third state to receive money to plan for expanding high-speed internet access to all residents in the state.
The National Telecommunications and Information Agency is expected to make an official announcement on the funding this morning.
Idaho is getting nearly $5 million in planning funds for that purpose. Eventually, Idaho and other states will receive a minimum of $100 million to implement the projects they determine necessary to connect all Idahoans to high-speed internet.
“The Idaho Office of Broadband is excited to begin the process of working with the state’s 5-year action plan and mapping in preparation for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Digital Equity program,” said Idaho’s State Broadband Program Manager Ramón Hobdey-Sánchez in an emailed statement to the Idaho Press. “These initial planning funds provide Idaho and the Idaho Broadband Advisory Board the opportunity to begin working with the broadband stakeholders and interested parties as soon as possible.”
The funding comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which in addition to providing funding for infrastructure such as roads, included $42 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which states will receive to help build out their high-speed internet infrastructure and connect all residents, said Evan Feinman, the NTIA’s deputy associate administrator for the program.
“Internet for all Americans is what we’re going to get done here,” Feinman said. “We’re going to hook up every single home and business to some kind of meaningful internet connection, and we’re going to ensure that as many of those folks as possible have the skills, equipment, and financial wherewithal to make meaningful use of that network connectivity.”
Idaho will receive over $4.9 million as part of the initial funding; over $4.3 million will be for planning for infrastructure expansion while $564,706 will be for the digital equity program — planning how to expand underserved communities’ access to the internet, including programs to provide equipment, build skills and offset the cost of internet service.
Louisiana was the first state to receive planning grant money through this “Internet for All” initiative, getting $2.9 million in August, followed by Ohio receiving $6.47 million in October.
Prior federal efforts to expand internet access have tended to be top-down led, underfunded, and did not have the goal of providing internet for everyone, Feinman said. They also tended to involve workers in Washington DC contracting with broadband service providers “without really consulting state or local leadership or members of those communities,” he said. The new programs are different, he said.
“This is much more about partnership between NTIA and the state broadband office, and then partnership between the state broadband office and local tribal and community leaders,” adding that it is about empowering the state broadband office to do the on-the-ground work .
The state broadband office will use the initial funds to ground truth where Idaho lacks internet connectivity, Feinman said. Internet service providers have given data to the Federal Communications Commission, which in turn will be releasing new maps of internet coverage on November 18, said Virginia Bring, press secretary for NTIA. It will then be the job of people in the broadband office to hold meetings to verify that coverage data with community members and “make a plan to develop a new program that will then allow the state to make subgrants to (companies) to build these networks and get everybody online,” Feinman said.
The US has less connectivity compared to other nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, Feinman said. Members of that organization are democracies that have market-driven economies, such as Japan, Chile, and Germany. The primary reason is that the US is less densely populated, he said.
But the lack of connectivity is also due to the difficulty in making it profitable, he said.
“It costs the same amount of money to run a mile of fiber in Indianapolis as it does in rural Idaho, but in downtown Indianapolis, you’re going to get thousands of customers paying you monthly so you can recoup that investment,” Feinman said . “In rural Idaho, you might only get a handful. That market failure is why it’s really important that the government step in and enter into the public-private partnerships we are contemplating so that we can make it … financially sustainable to extend network to as many Americans as possible.”
Communities without high-speed internet tend to suffer both from an economic perspective and other bad outcomes, particularly amongst the most vulnerable community members, Feinman said. The elderly may have more trouble aging in place, and “when they do, it’s less safe,” he said. Children in communities without high-speed internet are less likely to pursue post-secondary education, and when they do, it tends to be at less-prestigious institutions, and they receive less financial aid and take on more debt, he said.
The availability of health care “is dramatically diminished when you take telehealth out of the equation,” he said.
“So it’s a really important problem to solve, and we’ve been chipping away at it for a long time,” he said. “This is what we believe will be the final push to get internet for all Americans.”
Kelley Packer, the executive director for the Idaho Association of Cities, said that the initial grant money is an important first step in expanding internet access in the state.
“It’s really thrilling and exciting that we’re actually going to be receiving a grant so that we can be more thoughtful and intentional about our statewide plan, because I don’t believe we’ll be successful at the local levels without some state direction , and actually having a plan in place that helps everybody do this in a more organized way,” Packer said.
Right now, Idaho “does not have an A+ system anywhere” when it comes to internet connectivity, Packer said. Even parts of Boise have spotty coverage, she said. Going through the COVID-19 pandemic really exposed gaps, she said.
Packer also thinks Idaho’s future growth should be considered in the planning process.
“We need to not just look at expediency and try to find quick fixes; we need to be thoughtful and intentional on the growth that’s expected over the next five, 10, and 15 years in Idaho and plan long term about connecting everyone across the state so that we can have a more thriving economic atmosphere here in Idaho,” she said.
Libraries are one entity that stands to benefit most from the digital equity funding, Bring said.
Libraries offer a number of services to help with digital equity, said Stephanie Bailey-White, Idaho’s state librarian, who acts as the CEO of the Idaho Commission for Libraries. Those areas include providing equipment for check out to access the internet, providing skills training, technical support programs for people who need help solving equipment issues, and access to databases, she said.
“Especially during the pandemic, libraries focused on how they could keep students learning, adults earning, and improving the health and well-being of people throughout our state,” including starting telehealth sites, and providing device check out, Bailey-White said. When funding comes in for implementation, scaling up some of those projects would be a good use of the funds, she said.
Though the funding for digital equity may seem like a small part of the overall Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, it is still significant, she said.
“I think it could be a game changer for our state,” she said, adding that in her lifetime, she has not seen anything close to that level of funding for such projects.
How much each state will ultimately receive will be announced in June of 2023, Bring said, though no state will receive less than $100 million.
One program, called the Affordable Connectivity Program, is already available to residents across the country, Bring said. The program reduces internet bills for low-income Americans by up to $30 per month, or $75 per month for households on tribal lands, she said. Over 27,000 Idaho households have signed up so far, though an estimated 260,000 households in the state qualify, she said.