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Beefed-up broadband: Ada Co. could use federal dollars to build fiber loop

Ada County is considering a proposal to bring broadband to rural residents and businesses at both ends of Idaho’s largest county. 

Using $10 million from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan relief package, Ada County is considering building a nearly 100-mile loop of high-speed broadband fiber through areas north of Star and Eagle, in western Meridian and all the way south of Kuna. This could, if approved, bring expensive fiber infrastructure closer to rural areas of the county set for growth, adding more options for customers and opening the way for private companies to serve these areas currently left out of a fast connection. 

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Customers on the fringes of Ada County, and other rural areas throughout the state, are often unserved by the quick service broadband fiber brings because there are not enough potential homes and businesses to sign up for the service in these areas for private companies to justify the costs of building the infrastructure. This leaves these residents stuck using slower satellite connections or wireless internet provided by their cell phone company, which are often not adequate to work from home or attend classes remotely. 

Ada County’s IT Director Stephen O’Meara said the goal for the broadband loop would be to build a backbone of fiber internet private companies, or even other governments, could use to bring faster service to more people. Then, the county could lease the infrastructure to private companies so they could access more customers at a lower overall cost, potentially bringing additional service or more affordable rates. 

“Since a profit-driven company can’t make their case to move into these areas, for us to step in and help them makes all the sense,” O’Meara said. “If we put that (loop) in, it lowers their cost to build out and it lowers their overhead to bring people onto the internet and I think that’s sort of thing government is good for.”

Ada County Commissioners will have the final say on whether or not to green-light the project in the coming months. They heard the initial pitch for the proposal last week and asked for more information and further meetings to hammer out the details of how it would work and who they would want to serve. 

A loop of opportunity

Not all of the infrastructure for the loop would need to be installed. 

O’Meara said if the county tried to dig a 100 mile loop of fiber for the project it would take up the entire roughly $80 million in ARPA funds the federal government awarded the county. To build the loop with only $10 million he proposes using a combination of “dark fiber,” which is fiber already installed in the urban areas by private companies, and new construction to build out the system.

The idea is Ada County would partner with a private company already operating in the area and sign a long-term lease for fiber they already have in the cities for the county’s own network. Then, the county would fill in the gaps by building the outer sections where no fiber already exists to complete the loop. Depending on the permitting process, O’Meara said the fiber would either be dug in the ground or installed on existing power lines. 

His staff worked with the planning department to put together a concept map, showing a possible path for where the loop could go. The darker blue areas on the map show where regional planning organization COMPASS says are expected to explode in the coming decades. The map is not final and is still subject to change assuming the project is approved. 

A proposed route for the broadband loop. The darker blue areas represent areas COMPASS is planning for high population growth in the coming years. This map is still subject to change and is not final. Courtesy of Ada County

The path of the proposed loop is it would connect Ada County’s major data centers, like the Ada County courthouse, the Ada County Jail and the elections office and then run throughout the heavily growing unincorporated areas to bring new high-speed service. And by building a loop instead of a network with lots of dead ends, it means if the line is cut the service could still continue by traveling the other way around the circle while crews fix the break. 

Two for the price of one

O’Meara is hoping to get as much bang for the community’s buck with the project. 

To do this, he wants the loop to include two separate networks of fiber installed together. This would allow Ada County to have one of them only for government operations between its facilities and other cities and another one purely for the public to use, meaning video court proceedings or other data-heavy uses wouldn’t bog down the public. It would also keep government operations on a separate network from anyone for cyber security reasons. 

Right now, Ada County pays taxpayer money to lease the fiber network it uses between its various facilities for operations. By building its own network, those costs would go down and security would increase, O’Meara said. 

It will be up to the commissioners to decide what sort of terms they want to lease the fiber network out to a private company on. O’Meara said there are a range of options for programs they can do and this network would help support other broadband projects underway in Ada County’s other cities, but how people are served with this is still waiting for a decision. 

“Do we want to just have the partner come up with a plan to sell inexpensive cheaper internet access to homes and that’s all we’re going to do, or do we want to actually move forward with municipal wifi where we pick locations where we would put in these wifi networks?” O’Meara said.

“…This really isn’t about my network. It allows us to do something we’ve never done and provide more offerings to citizens, but I need the folks who get elected to decide what part of the pool they want to be in.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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