Words & Deeds

Idaho internet speed? Nearly worst in U.S. Here’s how we improve (if this @%# page loads)

Assuming you haven’t hit your monthly data cap, please keep reading, Idaho friends.

It’s a slow news day here in Boise, and by slow, I mean your internet service provider.

In a recent ranking of fixed-broadband download speeds, Boise finished 95th among the 100 largest cities in the United States. Idaho was also the fourth slowest state. The tests were conducted in 2018 by Seattle-based Ookla. That’s the company behind Speedtest, a web service that offers Internet-access performance analysis.

Is there hope for us? Maybe. If a magical new ISP shakes up the status quo in Boise. Or we convince city leaders to mimic Ammon, a small town near Idaho Falls.

But first, let’s acknowledge our inherent barrier. Idaho’s lackluster ranking is predictable. The bottom feeders, starting with the worst, are Maine, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Vermont.

“All five states have low population densities which makes broadband investments there less cost effective,” Ookla’s report explained. “While the mean speeds in these states still well exceeded the 25 Mbps needed for 4K streaming, it’s highly likely that there are far too many residents who are not achieving these speeds.”

Expecting cutting-edge internet in Idaho City or Yellow Pine isn’t realistic. But think about Boise. Especially while you’re driving during rush hour. Doesn’t Idaho’s capital feel less like a “low population density” city every day?

How can Boise still rank so pathetically low?

One obvious culprit: Lack of competition. Our ISPs have little incentive to get dramatically better anytime soon.

“In the Boise area, we have two real competitors, right? CenturyLink and Cable One,” says Doug Twitchell, an assistant professor in information technology management at Boise State University.

CenturyLink relies on a digital subscriber line (DSL) connection. Cable One uses cable.

“When I moved here in 2016, I looked at them both,” Twitchell says. “And I can go cheaper but slower with CenturyLink, or a little bit more expensive but faster with Cable One. That’s kind of the choice it boils down to for everybody here.”

Each offers a generally reliable, competent product. (Except, of course, when CenturyLink experiences an outage that affects 911 emergency service nationwide.)

But neither ISP appears to be in a hurry to push Idaho to the next level.

fiber optic
A spool of fiber optic cable during installation. Ariana Lindquist Bloomberg

Boiseans may have noticed CenturyLink workers installing some fiber optic cable.

“They’ve thrown a little bit at it so they can at least advertise the gigabit,” Twitchell says. “... (But) CenturyLink is known for really not doing a whole lot. ... With the technology they have, unless they lay fiber, you’re working off of the old telephone lines. Those telephone lines are limited.”

Cable One advertises bundled TV and ISP packages. It also recently revamped internet pricing and data cap rules. (Cable One will rebrand as Sparklight this summer. Is that name supposed to sound faster?)

“My point,” Twitchell says, “is that with one of the competitors not really doing a whole lot to push things along, the other one’s not going to do anything either.”

It’s a common one- and two-ISP theme in markets nationwide. It’s why everybody complains.

To be fair, Boise’s ISPs don’t exactly offer sloth-like service. “I have three people in my house watching Netflix, no problem,” Twitchell says.

And the ISPs aren’t exactly static. “... Over the past five years Cable One has invested nearly $95 million in Idaho on network upgrades and enhancements in order to bring the latest technology and fastest speeds to our customers,” Cheryl Goettsche, the company’s general manager in Western Idaho and Eastern Oregon, wrote in an email. “We built to over 6,700 homes and businesses last year, expanding our service area and installed an ethernet passive optical network in Downtown Boise.”

But increased competition would probably drive down prices. And encourage quicker, more consistent speeds. Those frustrating data caps would become less restrictive — or be eliminated. “If you’re not running video, that’s never a problem,” Twitchell says. “But if you’re streaming a lot, you can run into those data caps quite quickly.”

So how do we make Boise’s internet situation more progressive?

We could pray for Google Fiber to swoop into town. The lightning-speed service debuted in 2010 in Kansas City, Missouri. Guess which city ranks No. 1 in Ookla’s fixed-broadband speed ranking? Yep. KC’s average download speed clocked in at 159.19 Mbps. Boise’s was 69.23.

“Google Fiber, of course, is what everybody wants,” Twitchell says.

Sadly, Google Fiber’s plans to conquer the world have slowed — big time. We need other solutions.

In the Treasure Valley, Verizon and other telecommunications companies have started installing 5G-capable transmitters on telephone poles and streetlights. The goal is to upgrade future cell service. What if these companies got into the home-internet business, too, increasing competition?

It’s theoretically possible, Twitchell says, although small-cell transmitters rely on proximity. “You could sell wireless internet access that is just as fast as wired internet access to people who were close enough,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s what they’re planning, but ... that could be something that could disrupt the two longstanding (ISP) incumbents.”

Better yet, what if Boise took the internet into its own hands? Like Ammon did? That forward-thinking city recently installed its own fiber-optic cable infrastructure.

“They built their own municipal fiber, and then had companies come in, so you can buy the internet access through the city’s fiber with various companies,” Twitchell says. “So there’s only one line, but you choose which company you want the service through.”

Ammon residents are able to switch ISPs through the city’s website without equipment headaches. And enjoy blazing-fast internet.

“It was picked up by one of the national tech magazines that I read as a really good model that a lot of places should follow,” Twitchell says. “Because it encourages competition, but they don’t have to have redundant infrastructure.”

Exactly why couldn’t the Treasure Valley do that?

“That’s a wonderful question,” Twitchell says. “I think Boise, Meridian, could easily do what Ammon did. Because Ammon’s just another little Idaho town. They didn’t need Google to do this. They just did it themselves.”

Easily might be a stretch. But it sure sounds like something worth exploring.

“Meridian and Boise could band together,” Twitchell says, “and kind of build it out together, for example.”

Would it cost money? Of course. Lots. Ammon residents pay an extra utility fee. Would CenturyLink and Cable One try to create potential roadblocks? Seems logical. And would the infrastructure be harder to pull off in a larger market? Sure.

But it makes so much potential sense. Bruce Patterson, Ammon’s technology director, told the Post Register in Idaho Falls that he believes “this is the role the city should be in.”

“We shouldn’t be the ISP,” Patterson said, “but instead give you multiple provider choices to let them compete.”

Unless Idaho is content with bottom-of-the-barrel speed rankings and incremental service improvements, it might be the only solution in the foreseeable future.

“I think that this Ammon thing is really the way to go, personally,” Twitchell says, before chuckling. “But I’m not a city council that has to decide to do this.”

Michael Deeds is an entertainment reporter and columnist at the Idaho Statesman. Since joining the newsroom as an intern in 1991, he has been a sportswriter, features editor and entertainment editor. Deeds also co-hosts “The Other Studio,” a one-hour music show, at 8 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River.