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Idaho Falls, Idaho, Has History of Public-Sector Innovation

There’s a long history of effective public-sector infrastructure investments and services being implemented in the region — programs some conservatives might deride as socialism — and working exceedingly well.

Idaho State Line
(TNS) — If you were going to bet on where big innovations in public works projects would come from eastern Idaho would probably not be near the top of the list. Idaho Falls is a very conservative city, and Ammon is perhaps more so. During the 2020 general election in Legislative District 33, which is mostly coextensive with the boundaries of Idaho Falls, no Democrat broke the 40 percent mark.

Nonetheless, there’s a long history of effective public-sector infrastructure investments and services being implemented in the region — programs some conservatives might deride as socialism — and working exceedingly well.

You can trace the beginning of the open-access fiber revolution taking place in Bonneville County to the year 1900, when Idaho Falls installed its first hydroelectric plant on an irrigation canal, a plan championed by then-Mayor Joseph Clark, according to an Idaho Falls Power history.

The power was initially used for street lighting, but two years later the city decided to begin selling power directly to residents — a pattern that would be repeated. That’s how Idaho Falls came to own a power company, that today has an annual budget of around $80 million and offers some of the lowest electric rates in the country.

A century of incremental development later, Idaho Falls Power was operating four hydroelectric power plants and hundreds of miles of transmission lines throughout the city, along with a number of substations. It not only used its own generated electricity but bought electricity from the broader electric grid to keep up with demand. The complex tasks of buying power when it was needed for a surge and distributing power along the city meant Idaho Falls Power needed a lot of information quickly.

So in the early 2000s, Idaho Falls Power began connecting its substations with top-end fiber-optic cable. But because both Idaho National Laboratory and many of the small companies that have sprung up around its periphery needed fast internet as well, the decision was made to lay so-called “dark fiber” — unused portions of fiber-optic cable that can be activated later — along the same lines.

By the time the idea of a publicly owned residential fiber network came up, it was much easier to implement.

“For us, we really viewed it as what’s the most efficient way to leverage the assets the community already has and owns,” Information Systems Foreman Jace Yancey said. “We already had a dark fiber network.”

The dark fiber throughout the city formed the core network, and neighborhood sub-networks could be built out of it like limbs. Fiber could be strung along with city power lines or drawn through underground city electrical conduits, making the network easier to build.

Idaho Falls Fiber started providing residential access in 2019, and it has steadily grown across the city. It’s already available in most central residential areas and many subdivisions, and it’s quickly expanding through the remainder of the city.

And for as conservative as this area is, you rarely hear a peep of opposition to these big public investments. Some of the reason may be that the system retains an element of capitalist competition: the ISPs competing for customers.

“We view it as enabling competition,” said Bear Prairie, general manager of Idaho Falls Power. “We’re enabling capitalism to take place.”

Idaho Falls City Councilman John Radford said he thinks there’s little conservative opposition because the fiber network is working to support commerce, as working from home and home-based online businesses become more common.

The other reason may be, simply, that it’s hard to argue with a good thing.

Approaching broadband as public infrastructure means fiber will reach every neighborhood in the city, said Yancey, not just those where a private company thinks the biggest profits can be had.

“It’s not going to be a service that just the nice areas or the rich have,” Yancey said.

And it’s affordable. The cheapest 250-megabit plan (guaranteed speed, which means it’s several times as fast as the normal cable internet speed here) runs about $35 per month with no data cap. An additional $25 fee to the city pays for the costs of upkeep of the physical network.

© 2022 The Idaho Statesman. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.