Idaho Receives First Grants for Massive Project to Bring Internet to All Americans

Idaho Receives First Grants for Massive Project to Bring Internet to All Americans

Idaho will be the third state to receive funding to plan to expand high-speed Internet access to all state residents.

The National Telecommunications and Information Agency is expected to make an official funding announcement this morning.

Idaho receives nearly $5 million in planning funds for this purpose. Eventually, Idaho and other states will receive a minimum of $100 million to implement projects they deem necessary to connect everyone in Idaho to high-speed Internet.

“The Idaho Broadband Office is excited to begin the process of working with the state’s five-year action plan and mapping for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Digital Equity program,” the official said. of the Idaho State Broadband Program, 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 broadband stakeholders and interested parties as soon as possible.”

The funding comes from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, 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 their high-speed Internet infrastructure and connect all residents, said Evan Feinman, NTIA’s deputy associate administrator for the program.

“Internet for All Americans is what we’re going to do here,” Feinman said. “We’re going to connect every home and every business to some kind of meaningful internet connection, and we’re going to make sure that as many of those people as possible have the skills, the equipment, and the financial means to make meaningful use of it. this network connectivity.

Idaho will receive more than $4.9 million in initial funding; more than $4.3 million will be for infrastructure expansion planning, while $564,706 will be for the digital equity agenda – planning how to expand internet access to underserved communities, including programs to provide equipment, develop skills and offset the cost of Internet service.

Louisiana was the first state to receive a planning grant under this “Internet for All” initiative, getting $2.9 million in August, followed by Ohio receiving $6.47 million in October.

Past federal efforts to expand internet access have tended to be top-down, underfunded, and not aimed at getting the internet to everyone, Feinman said. They also tended to involve Washington DC workers under contract with broadband service providers “without really consulting state or local leaders or members of those communities,” he said. The new programs are different, he says.

“This is much more of a partnership between NTIA and the state broadband office, and then a partnership between the state broadband office and local tribal and community leaders,” adding that it’s about empowering the state broadband office to do the work on the ground. .

The state broadband office will use the initial funds to do ground truthing where Idaho lacks internet connectivity, Feinman said. Internet service providers have provided data to the Federal Communications Commission, which in turn will release new Internet coverage maps on Nov. 18, said NTIA press officer Virginia Bring. It will then be the job of the people in the broadband office to hold meetings to check coverage data with community members and “make a plan to develop a new program that will then allow the state to grant sub-grants to (companies) to build these networks and get everyone online,” Feinman said.

The United States has less connectivity than other countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, Feinman said. Members of this organization are democracies that have market economies, such as Japan, Chile and Germany. The main reason is that the United States is less densely populated, he said.

But the lack of connectivity is also due to the difficulty of making it profitable, he said.

“It costs the same amount of money to run a fiber mile in Indianapolis as it does in rural Idaho, but in downtown Indianapolis you’ll get thousands of customers paying you monthly so you can recover this investment,” Feinman said. . “In rural Idaho, you might only get a handful. This market failure is why it’s really important for the government to step in and enter into the public-private partnerships that we envision so that we can make … financially viable to extend the grid to as many Americans as possible.

Communities without high-speed internet tend to suffer both economically and from other poor outcomes, especially among the most vulnerable members of the community, Feinman said. Older people may have a harder time 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 go into more debt, a he declared.

Health care availability “is dramatically reduced when you take telehealth out of the equation,” he said.

“So it’s a very important problem to solve, and we’ve been solving it for a long time,” he said. “This is what we think is the final push to get the internet for all Americans.”

Kelley Packer, executive director of the Idaho Association of Cities, said the initial grant money is an important first step in expanding internet access in the state.

“It’s really exciting and thrilling that we’re getting a grant so we can be more thoughtful and intentional about our statewide plan because I don’t think we’ll be successful at the local level without leadership. of the state, and actually having a plan in place that helps everyone do it in a more organized way,” Packer said.

Right now, Idaho “doesn’t have an A+ system anywhere” when it comes to internet connectivity, Packer said. Even parts of Boise have patchy coverage, she said. Navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic has really exposed shortcomings, she said.

Packer also thinks Idaho’s future growth should be factored into the planning process.

“We must not only look at the opportunity and try to find quick solutions; we need to be thoughtful and intentional about the expected growth over the next five, 10, and 15 years in Idaho and plan for the long term to connect everyone across the state so we can have a more thriving economic atmosphere here in Idaho,” she said.

Libraries are one of the entities that will benefit the most from digital capital funding, Bring said.

Libraries offer a number of services to help with digital equity, said Idaho State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White, who serves as CEO of the Idaho Commission for Libraries. These areas include the provision of payment equipment to access the Internet, professional training, technical support programs for people who need help with equipment problems and access to databases, a she declared.

“Particularly during the pandemic, libraries have been focused on how they can continue to learn, adults earn money, and improve the health and well-being of people across our state,” including in launching telehealth sites and providing device control, Bailey-White said. When the funding rolls out, scaling up some of these projects would be a good use of the funds, she said.

While digital equity funding might seem like a small part of the overall bipartisan infrastructure law, it’s still important, she said.

“I think it could be a game-changer for our state,” she said, adding that in her lifetime she hadn’t seen anything close to this level of funding for such projects.

The amount each state will ultimately receive will be announced in June 2023, Bring said, although no state will receive less than $100 million.

A 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. More than 27,000 Idaho households have registered so far, though about 260,000 households in the state are eligible, she said.

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