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Idaho Invests Big In Broadband During Pandemic

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Madeleine Bumstead, Southern Idaho Economic Development
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Construction begins in October on a tower in Bliss, Idaho, a city of 300 in Gooding County.

By the end of the year, more people in Idaho will have access to broadband, thanks to the state’s nearly $50 million investment during the pandemic.

Idaho funded 102 projects using CARES Act dollars, which will connect roughly 40,000 Idaho households to broadband, many in communities as small as 3,000 people.

Georgia Dimmick, the disaster recovery coordinator at Region IV Development in Twin Falls, helped several south central Idaho communities apply for broadband grants with the state this summer.

She said in Eden, a city of 400 in Jerome County, the mayor recognized the need early one morning this spring.

"There was like 20 or 30 kids out on the front yard at the high school because they didn’t have internet at their house, and they had to get their homework done," Dimmick said.

Eden received nearly $3 million to bring service to more of its residents’ homes. 

Other projects the state funded make free wireless connection available in public spaces, such as in downtown areas and parks, and at schools. Two millon dollars was also allocated to the Idaho Commission for Libraries to bring all-day Wi-Fi access to more than 50 rural libraries in the state.

Benewah County was awarded the only grant in the state -- for about $42,000 -- to improve access to telehealth services.

As a result, residents at Valley Vista Care, a nursing home in St. Maries, will be able to see providers at the Benewah Community Hospital from a distance, according to Alex Barts, the executive director of the county's economic development organization, Timber Plus. Additionally, a local pharmacy will set up a room to facilitate telehealth appointments for people who don't have reliable internet connection at home.

Broadband investment in rural communities was a primary focus of the Broadband Task Force, formed by Gov. Brad Little in 2019. In November of last year, the group shared its assessment and recommendations, and highlighted North Central Idaho as the largest underserved area in the state.

Dimmick of Region IV said without the grants, internet service providers wouldn’t have had an incentive to bring broadband to low population areas -- at least not immediately.

“They would’ve never had broadband this year," she said. "There was no funding — there’s no way they would’ve had it.”

A report from the nonprofit Pew Research Trusts found Idaho is one of a handful of states that did not have a broadband grant program before the pandemic, but used coronavirus relief money for this purpose. 

Construction on the projects needs to be completed by the end of December, when CARES Act money expires.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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