Eastern Idaho is in the midst of a fiber-optic revolution. What’s the secret to success?

·3 min read
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Editor’s note: This is part of a series about the fiber-optic internet revolution taking place in Bonneville County, where the cities of Ammon and Idaho Falls have used public network ownership to offer residents some of the cheapest, fastest internet around.

In 2000, internet access was a bit of a luxury. It was useful, but you could easily get by without it. Today, that’s no longer true. Work, commerce, schooling and participation in the public sphere — all now rely on internet access.

“You need broadband connectivity as much as you need electricity or water,” said Bear Prairie, general manager of Idaho Falls Power.

In eastern Idaho, two relatively small towns, Idaho Falls (population 62,000) and Ammon (16,000) have begun treating broadband as an essential service. These fairly conservative communities offer residents access to lightning-fast internet at low cost.

They rely on variations of the same theme to achieve these results: public network ownership. It’s a model that’s gaining steam nationwide, with Detroit set to begin construction on a $10 million network explicitly modeled after the one engineered in tiny Ammon.

In most places, residents have at most one option for fiber internet — the service provider that built and owns the fiberoptic cable in their neighborhood. This is a common problem with utilities like broadband, one economists call a “natural monopoly.” Since there are so many costs and headaches associated with the initial installation of a physical fiber network, it’s pretty unlikely a second company will build a second, redundant network in the same neighborhood because they’d already be competing at a disadvantage with the incumbent provider.

In such a situation, residents wind up with two options: pay the price set by the monopoly or go without.

But using “open access network” models in place in much of Ammon and Idaho Falls, the fiber-optic lines are publicly owned, and internet service providers compete for customers across them. Instead of the market developing along the lines of cable TV, it’s developing more like the market in shipping, where UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service compete for customers while delivering their services using publicly owned roads.

There are no contracts, so dissatisfied customers can switch providers in minutes. The competition drives down prices — way down. The average Ammon customer pays less than $30 per month for a true 1-gigabit connection.

And Ammon Mayor Sean Coletti doesn’t think that’s the floor for prices. “Eventually internet will be free, and add-ons will be what you’re paying for,” he said.

The financial model developed in Ammon, whose annual budget hovers around $10 million, provides a model for cities large and small across Idaho that want to expand broadband access for residents.

Eastern Idaho, long a bastion of conservative politics, is perhaps not the most likely place for a new broadband model based on publicly owned networks to arise. The decision, well over a century ago, to build a small hydroelectric plant on an irrigation ditch to provide electric street lights set off a process that today provides residents with both cheap electricity and cheap internet.

And with recent changes in federal policy, and local governments flush with cash that can be used to improve broadband access, the stage has been set for systems like those in Idaho Falls and Ammon to proliferate.

“It is unique compared to anything historically,” said Bruce Patterson, the architect of Ammon’s fiber-optic network. “The money that’s out there for the very first time is very slanted toward having a public entity involved.”

Over the next three days, I’ll examine how the open-access, publicly owned fiber-optic model took off in eastern Idaho, why big public investments are thriving in a highly conservative community and how the model that was built here is spreading to the big city.

And I’ll try to show that there’s a lesson to be learned: Government can do things, and do them well. And, no matter the politics, it’s hard to argue with something that works well.

Tomorrow: Why would conservative eastern Idaho become a hotbed for innovation around publicly owned fiber? It traces back to a long tradition of public investment at odds with the region’s political reputation and a rivalry that has pushed two towns to excel.

Bryan Clark is an Idaho Statesman opinion writer based in eastern Idaho.