Fiber optics, not magic beans: rural Idaho hopes for broadband stimulus

by Gavin Dahl, Boise Weekly

Bruce Patterson is the one-man IT department for Ammon, a small town of 13,000 near Idaho Falls. He is fed up with companies overlooking the town when they discover the cost of Internet is prohibitive.

"There's a tremendous business in medical imaging and legal services in Idaho Falls, a city of 50,000 that has municipal fiber optic. But we can't attract any of those businesses," he said. "Metro areas are the dominant market for the big companies. A lot of communities are facing that we will be the last served."

So three years ago, Ammon began planning a project to reach 4,500 unserved and underserved Internet users with a high-speed "virtual broadband gateway" run by the city.

Patterson is one of a dozen broadband leaders in Idaho eagerly awaiting decisions from the two federal agencies doling out $7.2 billion in the first round of broadband stimulus funds. Although the guidelines seem to favor large telecoms, Idaho's little guys say they are qualified and their projects are necessary.

"This project would allow us to attract businesses into the city of Ammon that would make use of high bandwidth applications, medical imaging, call centers and data centers," Patterson said. He figures the project itself will create 40 to 50 jobs over two years.

Out of more than 22,000 broadband stimulus applications filed late last year, only 12 Idaho-based organizations sought to provide new connectivity to Idaho.

Ernie Bray is directing an initiative for the North Idaho Panhandle Area Council, which wants to drive economic development in Boundary and Bonner counties.

"Every entity we need to work with is already a stakeholder; we're ready to go," he said. "And we will use revenues for expansion and build out. We're trying to expand the concept of a service provider and services beyond just the triple play, voice-video-data," he said.

"Telemedicine is a service, hospitals are service providers. We want to take fiber to every home and every business, then connect them to libraries, schools and job services so they can take advantage of programs to help lift them up."

Bray thinks existing telecoms can be a problem, pointing out that Verizon controls downtown Sandpoint.

"At hotels in Sandpoint, it is so slow you can't even get e-mail," he claimed. "So is that area served? Quest [Aircraft], who builds the Kodiak airplane, they've gotta exchange large engineering files in real time; 250 jobs are at stake. Verizon only employs 12 people in our two counties. Who's more important?"

Patterson said the rumor is that the Panhandle application is the best in Idaho. Although Ammon has not received a rejection letter, Patterson is pessimistic about his chances.

"I wouldn't say we're in the running for round one. Our whole sales pitch was: we're building a network infrastructure that has never been done before. But they want people who built and managed and are running networks now."

Municipalities and economic development agencies tend to have less experience as broadband administrators.

Asked why Qwest sat out the first round, several sources suggested the nation's most powerful companies won't take any money that forces them to sign the government's nondiscrimination policy--the rules state that grantees "not favor any lawful Internet applications and content over others." Qwest, Idaho's largest residential provider, has a relatively clean record of neutrality compared with AT&T, which muted criticism of President George W. Bush during a live Pearl Jam Webcast in 2007. Comcast was caught slowing down access to competing content services and Verizon was criticized for stopping pro-choice text messages.

A Qwest spokesman told BW that higher government funding formulas make the second round of broadband stimulus more appealing to the company. Still, they would not be allowed to profit while building out a project.

Bray said neutrality is the key to facilitating competition. "As a conservative Republican who gets accused of sounding like Hugo Chavez, I can tell you: Where you don't have competition, prices are high and you don't have innovation."

"The City of Ammon wants to be the road, not the traffic," Patterson said. "Nondiscrimination is what we believe is the right thing. We wanna be completely open to every consumer and provider."

The local applicants are also competing with dozens of national groups that want to use the same funds to expand into Idaho.

According to a loud chorus of applicants, Rep. Walt Minnick's office took the lead in helping the Idaho dozen prepare applications.

"Although Walt voted against the stimulus bill, he recognized once it did pass, it was his job to get as much money for Idaho as possible," Minnick spokesman John Foster said.

At press time, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service, the federal agencies administering the broadband stimulus, have yet to award any Idaho project.

The Ada Community Library has found that as population grows in some areas, Internet access isn't as easy. Capacity at certain branches is over-extended. Their application is for a public computer center that would provide free access to high-speed Internet, as well as Web and office applications classes.

"Some people thought, now that we have the Internet, libraries won't be needed anymore," library Director Mary DeWalt said. "What we're finding is that people are using the Internet even more. When students are doing reports, there's a need for them to analyze and find the best information."

article originally published at Boise Weekly.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey