The Idaho Legislature is facing a number of critical issues it will need to address in the next session. But while topics such as Medicaid expansion and transportation funding grab the headlines, they should not overshadow one of the most critical challenges facing our state - access to broadband.
Robust high-speed Internet access will be the catalyst of Idaho's economic future and lawmakers need to make it a priority.
Unfortunately, Idaho has vast geographic challenges that inhibit the proliferation of broadband access. Low population density across long distances makes it more expensive and difficult to bring high-speed Internet access to some of our more rural areas.
According to the National Broadband Map, Idaho ranks a dismal 44th out of 56 states and territories when it comes to broadband access. In Lemhi, Benewah, Clearwater, Butte, Valley, Adams, and Boise counties, less than 80 percent of homes have access to download speeds of 3 megabits per second (Mbps), and in one of our more rugged and rural counties, Clark County, none of the homes have broadband access.
Considering the average peak American network speed is 29.6 Mbps, our citizens and businesses are functioning at a severe disadvantage.
Even in the counties of Bonner and Boundary, which I represent, the percentage of homes with access to broadband Internet is 87 percent and 83 percent respectively - a far cry from the national average of 97 percent of homes that can access broadband.
To overcome these obstacles, it is imperative that we encourage private sector investment in broadband. Since 1996, thanks to the government's relatively light regulatory approach, private Internet providers have invested more than $1 trillion in broadband infrastructure.
The U.S. now has more fixed and wireless broadband Internet subscribers than any nation in the world. Super high-speed networks that allow for speeds of up to 100 Mbps now pass more than 80 percent of American homes.
Most importantly, increasing broadband access will create jobs, diversify our economy, and help Idaho grow out of the most recent economic downturn. With Idaho's unemployment rate at 6.2 percent - more than double the low of 2.7 percent that we experienced before the recession began - it is imperative that we do all we can to promote job creation.
Today, the Internet economy supports more than 3.8 million jobs. The so-called "app economy," which was non-existent a few years ago, now supports more than 519,000 jobs alone. Expanding broadband access will allow us to capitalize on these opportunities right here in Idaho.
During this interim time, and in preparation of our upcoming legislative session, it is critical that we prioritize the issue of broadband access in our state. We need to find solutions that encourage private sector investment and bring high-speed Internet to even our most rural areas. Addressing this critical challenge will ensure the future economic success of citizens in urban and rural Idaho.
Eskridge, R-Dover, represents the 1st Legislative District of Idaho and is the co-chair on the Energy, Environment & Technology Interim Committee.