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Federal Funds to Boost Broadband for Rural Idahoans

Thanks to millions of dollars of CARES Act funds — the economic rescue package passed by Congress to avoid a collapse of the economy — more than 40,000 Idahoans will have access to high-speed Internet for the first time.

by Colin Tiernan, The Times-News / October 15, 2020
Shutterstock/Jiri Flogel

(TNS) — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions of Americans to work from home or attend school online.

But working from home and going to class online typically require fast internet connections. In rural south-central Idaho, not everyone has access to broadband. So in a time when high-speed internet has never been more valuable — even essential — some Magic Valley residents have been at an enormous disadvantage.

Thanks to millions of dollars of CARES Act funds — the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress in March to avoid a complete collapse of the U.S. economy — more than 40,000 Idahoans will have access to high-speed internet for the first time. As of Wednesday, tiny Bliss has been hooked up with high-speed broadband.

“If we didn’t get a grant for it, it might never had made it here,” Bliss Mayor Chris Pruett said.

Before Bliss unveiled two 125-foot broadband towers this week, the 300-plus residents who had internet, had slow internet. At best they might have been able to download files at 10 megabits per second, but it also depended on where your house was.

“If you lived on the wrong side of the hill you couldn’t get that,” Pruett said.

People who lived in the canyon next to Bliss couldn’t get internet either. Now, with broadband, more people have internet access and the baseline speed is 25 mbps. That’s much, much faster. The new White Cloud Communications-provided internet can go all the way up to 100 mbps.

Building the infrastructure to get Bliss broadband cost $840,000. Bliss couldn’t have afforded that, but the pandemic made millions of dollars available for rural economic development.

Idaho got $1.25 billion directly from the CARES Act, $50 million of which went to the Idaho Department of Commerce. The Department of Commerce decided to spend the money on broadband in rural communities.

There were several categories of broadband projects that qualified for the funds: Education, telemedicine, local government, safety or residential (like in Bliss). All projects have to be completely finished by the end of the year to be eligible for the money.

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Tom Kealey said the bias was for communities with fewer than 3,000 residents.

“It helps to address the digital divide,” Kealey said.

Overall, the CARES Act will fund 102 broadband projects in Idaho, bringing broadband to more than 40,000 people, Kealey said. Murtaugh, Burley, Rupert, Bliss, Wendell, Eden and Hazelton all won grants for broadband projects. In addition to helping with teleworking, telemedicine, remote learning, safety and local government operations, Southern Idaho Economic Development Rural Specialist Ervina Covcic pointed out that broadband will be a boon for business owners who need faster connections.

White Cloud Communications Owner Joe Shelton explained that it hasn’t been financially viable for companies to provide broadband services in tiny communities. An internet provider needs a broad customer base to earn its money back. Grants like these are the only way smaller communities can keep up.

“For the people of Bliss, we never would have been able to spend those kinds of dollars for that small a population,” Shelton said.

©2020 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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