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Could Valley County be getting into the internet business?

A fiber internet installation, with equipment in racks.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/harquail
/
A fiber internet installation, with equipment in racks.

After years of discussion, Valley County is exploring moves to try to bring faster, more affordable high-speed internet to its residents.

County Commissioner Sherry Maupin said service deficits became very apparent when COVID hit.

“People came here and started remote working,” she said. “Children needed to be able to find access to good internet to do their education.”

Demands on the network infrastructure regularly rose to levels the area might only have previously seen on weekends.

“A 25/3 (upload/download speed) connection really doesn't even allow us to do Zoom calls,” she said. That’s the minimum speed required to be considered high-speed internet by the Federal Communications Commission.

Sparklight (formerly CableOne) and Ziply (a company formed to acquire the assets of Frontier Communications in bankruptcy) are the two main internet service providers, or ISPs, in Valley County.

Maupin said ISPs in recent years have received some federal grants for network growth, but the needs of the community still haven’t been met.

Valley County, through a new network partnership called the West Central Mountains Fiber Network, wants to lease unused fiber connections owned by the ISPs. If none are available, it could also lay its own lines and lease them back to ISPs for commercial use.

The lines would connect to Boise and increase the bandwidth available for subscribers in the area. If the WCM Fiber Network owned the lines, it could also encourage other ISPs to serve the area and promote competition, Maupin said.

“Valley County nor the West Central Mountains Fiber Network necessarily wants to be a fiber company,” she said. ”We just are trying to find solutions in every way that we can to try and get additional fiber speeds here.”

The county posted a request for leasing proposals, but hasn’t received any yet. The deadline for proposals is December 30th. The request was first reported by the McCall Star News.

A Ziply spokesman said the company hasn’t been directly approached by Valley County, but is working with the city of McCall on internet expansion there.

In a statement, Dan Miller said the company, “worked through a handful of construction challenges and ordinance changes with the city that required completion before a formal proposal could be submitted. We are working to have a finalized proposal by the end of the year.”

Miller said the company would be willing to have a conversation about leasing its available fiber, but did not specify whether Ziply would submit a proposal to the county.

Sparklight representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Maupin doesn’t expect the county will receive any proposals offering fiber capacity, and she doesn’t have an idea of how much adding network capacity might cost or how the county will pay for it.

The state could provide some funding via its broadband expansion initiative; the new federal funding through the recently-passed infrastructure legislation could be an option as well.

“Those are public funds and they really should go to public infrastructure,” Maupin said. “So what does that look like moving forward? That's one of the best questions to ask. Should we be putting that into private industry? I don't know the answer to that yet.”

She said the answers should start to clear up by spring. In the meantime, the West Central Mountains Fiber Network is asking internet users in that area to complete a survey on their internet use.

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News. He's also heard Saturday nights on Boise State Public Radio Music's Jazz Conversations.