Like many other states, connectivity across Idaho is unequally distributed. Urban areas may have a choice of one or two broadband providers while many rural areas have no options whatsoever. We have compiled the latest data from December 2016 into a map to highlight competition and show these disparities.
According to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2018 Broadband Progress Report, 98 percent of urban areas and 68 percent of rural areas in Idaho have broadband service, defined by the FCC as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. While about 1 million people in Idaho have access to two or more options, nearly half a million people are not nearly as lucky. Approximately 327 thousand of the state’s 1.683 million people have only one option for broadband service, and 169 thousand still do not have access to broadband. This, however, is actually a best-case scenario.
Failures In Broadband Data
These statistics and this map, like most broadband data, rely on FCC Form 477. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) complete the form explaining which census blocks they serve or could serve. Census blocks are the smallest unit of measurement for the U.S. Census, and they vary in size. Rural census blocks often cover more land mass than urban areas. ISPs need only be able to offer service to one person in a census block in order to claim the entire census block. This can lead to an overstatement of how many people are actually served. The FCC launched an interactive map with this data, and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has invited people to submit corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This map of Idaho likely overstates coverage – not because the ISPs are untruthful or they break the rules they’re required to follow when completing the form, but because Form 477 uses a benchmark that’s too broad. Idaho likely has even more people without access to high speed Internet service and many more who actually have only one choice in broadband provider — not two options — despite what the data suggests.
The unequal distribution of broadband service is most acute on the several Native American reservations in the state. Margaret Harding McGill, a technology reporter at Politico, dove into the details in her article “The Least Connected People in America.” At least 83 percent of the population on Idaho’s tribal lands does not have broadband access. At the same time, CenturyLink and Frontier have received funding to provide some service of 10 Mbps /1 Mbps, but this investment might not reach the reservations.
McGill also highlights how the Nez Perce built a wireless community network in order to communicate data about the river otter and other wildlife populations. Residents can connect to the network, but the speeds are still too slow to be considered broadband at only about 3 Mbps. The tribe is considering pursuing Connect America Fund grants through the upcoming Phase II Auction. This would enable them to connect their salmon hatcheries and more residents to a high speed connection.
Other Tribal communities are taking steps to connect their members. To the north, the Coeur d’Alene constructed a network across their reservation. It’s called Red Spectrum Communications and is a mix of wireless and Fiber-to-the-Home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided a loan of $6 million and a matching grant of another $6 million toward the project in 2010.
More Idaho Community Networks
On the outskirts of the Nez Perce reservation, the Port of Lewiston has a small community fiber network that serves the port, some businesses, and community anchor institutions, such as the medical center and the state college. The fiber network connects with similar small networks in the Ports of Whitman and of Clarkston.
In 2016, the small city of Emmett began to build a network for city facilities and community anchor institutions, including the library and city hall. The city now has some public Wi-Fi and can use secure connectivity in the public park for their annual Cherry Festival. We spoke with Mike Knittel from Emmett for episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, who told us how the city is discovering additional ways to use their investment. Idaho Falls also has a municipal dark fiber network that Internet Service Providers can lease to reach residents and businesses in an open access arrangement.
The City of Ammon pioneered open access network in Idaho starting back in 2008. The city’s Technology Director Bruce Patterson focused on improving public infrastructure, and the department developed a cutting-edge software-defined network. The network improved competition among Internet Service Providers, offering city residents better options. Since then, Ammon’s network has won awards for public safety and been featured in a short documentary, Ammon’s Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies.
Idaho’s community networks seek to fill the needs of local Idahoans, from providing basic Internet service to increasing broadband competition. Many parts of the state still have no broadband service or no choice in service, and the maps that we have only provide a glimpse of the problem.