Some rural Idahoans are still being told that they can’t have access to high-speed, broadband Internet that would give them access to features such as video.
Exactly how many don’t have it who want it is unclear, but it could be up to 10% of the population. While Jim Schmit, President of Idaho Operations for Qwest, told attendees of the Emerging Directions in Economic Development conference in Boise on Friday that “virtually all” Idahoans had such access, about a quarter of the economic development professionals attending indicated that they represented a community that didn’t have it yet, and most of the questions related to how their communities could get the access they’d been told wasn’t available.
Meanwhile, in rural Oregon and Washington, communities are using high-speed Internet access to attract new business and improve public safety.
In Washington, the Legislature passed in 2000 a law that allowed Public Utility Districts to deliver wholesale broadband Internet to retail providers. Grant County, a rural area in the center of the state, invested $40 million in broadband infrastructure, said Thomas Jones, vice president of 180 Connect Inc., a Toronto, Canada, provider of technical support services who spoke at the broadband infrastructure panel.
Between broadband access and the cheap power provided by the Grand Coulee Dam, the area has been able to attract installations from vendors such as Microsoft and Google, Jones said. “None of these are in Idaho, and I think there’s a reason why,” he said.
For example, the Gorge amphitheater — in addition to being supplied with breathtaking views and popular music — also has broadband Internet, and the House of Blues, which owns the facility, has considered using the facility as a backup to its Los Angeles offices in the case of a natural disaster.
In fact, this year the Washington Legislature is considering a pilot program to enable the public utility districts to provide broadband Internet services on a retail basis as well as wholesale.
Similarly, though Tom Pickren of Tropos Networks said during the panel that a technology called WiMAX is not yet available, it is already being used over a 700-mile area in eastern Oregon.
WiMAX is similar to the wifi technology that is currently widely used, but is based upon cellular phone communication methods, which means it has a much broader range than wifi — up to 30 miles — and it is being looked at as a means to provide broadband Internet to rural America.
Much of the cost of the eastern Oregon WiMAX network was funded by the Department of Homeland Security, to protect chemical weapons located in the area.
A lack of broadband Internet not only limits the economic development of rural Idaho, but limits public education as well. During the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hearings on public education, state superintendent of instruction Tom Luna indicated that his department was considering providing students with electronic textbooks, which are both cheaper than published textbooks and can be more easily updated. Consequently, children who live in areas without broadband Internet could end up being limited to published textbooks, Representative Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene and chairman of the House Education Committee, told JFAC.
This could raise the spectre of a two-tiered educational system, leaving rural Idahoans even further behind. “A school with dialup is a school that is disconnected from the infrastructure they need to survive,” said Senator Eliot Werk, D-Boise, during JFAC hearings.
Meanwhile, some rural economic development professionals reported that they had trouble getting cooperation from incumbent telephone and Internet companies — while such a company might not find it financially feasible to supply an area with broadband Internet, at the same time it doesn’t want to free the community to find solutions elsewhere.
On the other hand, it could be worse. One presenter noted that four states completely prohibited any municipality from participating in a broadband initiative. “Fortunately, Idaho isn’t one of them,” he noted.
At least, not yet.