First, the good news: Most companies can get top-notch data connections in the Treasure Valley, as long as they’re in an urban area.
That’s saying something, because there are lots of technology firms here that move huge amounts of data, and they want it done in milliseconds, not seconds.
Take Kount, for example. The Boise company analyzes online transactions for fraud potential.
In about one-quarter of a second on average, Kount expects to retrieve hundreds of pieces of data relating to the purchaser in each transaction it analyzes, calculate all that information into a single score assessing the trustworthiness of the purchase, then transmit the score to the seller.
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Kount analyzes millions of these transactions all over the world every day, so it can’t afford a slow connection, much less disruptions.
Rich Stuppy, Kount’s chief operating officer, said the Treasure Valley’s high-speed data connections are adequate for now.
“In general, I would say, yeah, we’re keeping pace and making progress,” Stuppy said. “We’re doing OK. We’re doing good. Would we prefer it always to be faster, cheaper, more bandwidth? Yes.”
Now, the not-so-good news: Connections to high-speed, fiber optic lines are rare in Idaho’s rural and residential areas. That means people who want to work from home or open businesses outside of the Valley’s urban zones have to pay for new fiber lines to be installed or make do with less bandwidth.
Connecting fiber optic lines to buildings in cities such as Boise, Caldwell, Nampa or Meridian is likely to be cheaper than it would be in, say, San Francisco, said Tab Roper, vice president and general manager in Boise for Level 3 Communications, a worldwide company that owns a big chunk of the fiber network here.
Partly, Roper said, that’s because there’s a lot of fiber running through Treasure Valley cities. Level 3 and other Treasure Valley providers such as CenturyLink, Syringa Networks, Zayo and Integra have buried fiber optic cables in the ground and hung them on power poles across the Treasure Valley. The companies share connections so that they can deliver data to more customers.
That local network is attached to fiber lines that connect in several places with the rest of the worldwide fiber network.
Roper said an internal analysis concluded that Level 3’s network alone comes within 500 feet of 95 percent of local businesses that use telecommunications.
“That’s probably the highest density of buildings per mile of any market in the country for us as a company,” he said.
Also, Roper said, local governments and utility companies don’t charge outrageous fees for permits to install fiber in the ground or on power lines. That helps keep costs down.
Locally, installing a buried fiber line might cost $50 per foot — more if it’s in rocky soil or an urban core and less if it’s on power poles, Roper said. In big cities, he said, that cost can run $250 to $500.
“We have probably the cheapest market in the company for building fiber and putting buildings on that (network),” he said. “We can get the services to some of the smaller businesses around here that in other markets they wouldn’t be able to get it.”
He said the company connects more buildings in the Valley each year “than Portland and Seattle and other bigger cities have done for years. It’s because our costs are so low.”
When a new customer wants a fiber connection, Roper said, Level 3 works out a formula for how much it will have to charge and for how long to recover the cost of installing the fiber line and associated electronics.
“We’ve got to hit a certain threshold, and we build,” he said.
Depending on the bandwidth they use, businesses here pay anywhere between $600 and $4,000 a month for data service and fiber access.
One of the biggest obstacles to a more dense high-speed data network in Idaho is our landscape: We quickly go from urban to wild.
It doesn’t take long to get out of the city. That’s good for boaters and campers. It’s bad for companies putting new buildings in outlying areas.
It’s especially problematic for hospitals, which provide service at clinics all over the state.
About two years ago, Saint Alphonsus Medical Group opened a clinic in Kuna, where no fiber connection was available, said Chris Lenaghen, manager of infrastructure and operations for Saint Al’s. Eventually, Lenaghen said, a fiber line was installed, connecting the clinic to the Treasure Valley’s broader data network. But the fiber project delayed the clinic’s opening.
The bottom line is that modern health care can’t function without high-speed data connections.
In a quest to make treatment more effective, hospitals send data-intensive files from one department to another, to other hospitals, clinics and even to doctors’ homes, where they can view things like X-rays and CT scan images.
The idea is to share information instantly, allowing for quicker, better decisions on treatment. Without high-speed, high-capacity fiber lines, that system doesn’t work.
“No longer is a network or Internet circuit or data circuit an optional item in health care,” Lenaghen said. “It’s very interruptive when we have an outage, especially in those situations where we don’t have a good backup solution. It pretty much cripples the ability for some of the patient care providers to do their job.”
That’s why Saint Al’s scheduled the opening of its Kuna clinic around the arrival a new fiber line.
“It does dictate when we can open facilities on occasion,” Lenaghen said.
Governments increasingly rely on high-speed connections, too.
Over the past 10 years, the city of Boise has extended fiber to dozens of its own facilities, including its wastewater treatment plan, library branches, a few fire stations and the headquarters for the fire and police departments, said Garry Beaty, Boise’s chief information officer for information and technology. Over the next year, Beaty said, the city hopes to connect the rest of its fire stations to the fiber optic network.
Beaty expects Boise’s data and storage needs to spike soon because city police officers will start wearing body cameras that record and store footage of virtually everything they do on duty.
FIBER AND THE CITY
No one at Boise City Hall was particularly surprised when Mayor Dave Bieter used a football analogy to explain his philosophy of the city government’s role in encouraging better local data access.
A lifelong sports enthusiast who played football and basketball in high school, Bieter said the city should act as the fullback for the Treasure Valley’s private data providers. In other words, government should clear the path for private industry to make advancements, not make the advancements itself.
That’s one reason why, in early July, Boise became the 100th member of Next Century Cities, a nationwide coalition that advocates for expanded broadband data connections as a crucial ingredient in economic and social progress.
“We’re trying to figure out what are the resources that are out there to help our partners in private industry build the infrastructure that’s needed for the type of economy that we want — you know, a high-tech economy that’s going to be built for the future,” said Nic Miller, Bieter’s director of economic development. “Because Internet, it’s an equalizer, right? For the economy, for education, and we want to make sure that there is fast, affordable access for everyone.”
The city is not planning to build its own fiber network, Miller said. In fact, he said a city-owned and maintained fiber ring would be “a nightmare” because it would be such a huge, complex and expensive undertaking — not to mention the question of whether it’s appropriate for government to compete with the private sector.
Besides Treasure Valley businesses, Pat Lawless wants to see more fiber connections to homes. He thinks that would help new companies, many of which start in entrepreneurs’ houses, take root.
In recent years, The CEO of Voxbright Technologies, a Boise software company that specializes in voice recognition systems, tried to spearhead construction of a high-speed fiber ring in Downtown Boise.
The idea was to provide cheap, high-end Internet, TV and telephone access to nearby homes and businesses the way Google has done in cities like Austin, Texas; Kansas City; and Provo, Utah.
Lawless has since abandoned that mission. He believes there’s a demand for high-end data service here but not enough will among private investors and governments to take Boise’s fiber infrastructure to the next level.
Donald Bush, Kount’s vice president of marketing, isn’t sure there’s enough demand here for a residential fiber network — at least not yet.
“To me, that’s the biggest piece. Are people willing to pay for it?” Bush said. “Where is the threshold that a consumer is willing to pay for high access? And how many are willing to pay for that? I might be willing to pay $200 a month to have fiber to my house, but that might be a very small subset of the market.”
Overcoming that barrier will require someone like Google to come in and build a fiber network, then offer cheap access to its customers, Lawless predicted.