Bonneville County’s Internet Revolution
This four-part series focuses on the fiber optic Internet revolution taking place in Bonneville County, where the cities of Ammon and Idaho Falls are leveraging public network ownership to provide residents with the cheapest and fastest Internet available.
If you were to bet on where major innovations in public works projects from eastern Idaho would come, it probably wouldn’t be at the top of the list. Idaho Falls is a very conservative city, and Ammon might be even more so. In the 2020 general election in Legislative District 33, which largely coincides with the borders of Idaho Falls, no Democrat broke the 40 percent mark†
Nevertheless, there is a long history of effective investment in infrastructure and public sector services in the region – programs some conservatives may ridicule as socialism – and which have worked extremely well.
You can trace the beginnings of the open-access fiber optic revolution in Bonneville County as far back as 1900, when Idaho Falls installed its first hydroelectric power plant on an irrigation canal, a plan championed by then-Mayor Joseph Clark, according to a history of Idaho Falls Power†
The power was initially used for street lighting, but two years later the city decided to start selling power directly to residents – a pattern that would be repeated. That’s how Idaho Falls became the owner of an energy company, which today has an annual budget of about $80 million and offers some of the lowest electricity rates in the country†
A century of incremental development later, Idaho Falls Power operated four hydroelectric power plants and hundreds of miles of transmission lines throughout the city, along with a number of substations. In addition to using its own generated electricity, it bought electricity from the wider grid to meet demand. The complex tasks of buying power when needed for a surge and distributing power across the city meant that Idaho Falls Power needed a lot of information quickly.
So in the early 2000s, Idaho Falls Power began connecting its substations with high-quality fiber optic cable. But because both Idaho National Laboratory and many of the small businesses that have sprung up on the periphery also needed high-speed internet, it was decided to lay so-called “dark fiber” — unused sections of fiber optic cable that can be reactivated later — along the same line. .
By the time the idea of a public fiber network came up, it was much easier to implement.
“For us, we really saw it as the most efficient way to leverage the resources that the community already has and owns,” said Information Systems Foreman Jace Yancey. “We already had a dark fiber network.”
The dark fiber throughout the city formed the core network, and nearby subnetworks could be built from it like limbs. Fiber optic can be stretched along city power lines or pulled through underground city power lines, making the network easier to build.
Idaho Falls Fiber began offering residential access in 2019 and has grown steadily in the city. It is already available in most central residential areas and many subdivisions, and it is rapidly expanding throughout the rest of the city.
And as conservative as this area is, you rarely hear a peep of opposition to these big public investments. One reason may be that the system retains an element of capitalist competition: the ISPs competing for customers.
“We view it as enabling competition,” said Bear Prairie, general manager of Idaho Falls Power. “We make capitalism possible.”
Idaho Falls City Councilman John Radford said he thinks there is little conservative opposition as the fiber network works to support commerce as work from home and home-based online businesses become more common.
The other reason may simply be that it is difficult to argue with something good.
Approaching broadband as public infrastructure means fiber will reach every neighborhood in the city, Yancey said, not just those where a private company thinks the biggest gains can be made.
“It’s not going to be a service that only the beautiful areas or the wealthy have,” Yancey said.
And it’s affordable. The cheapest 250 megabit plan (guaranteed speed, meaning it’s several times faster than normal wired internet speed here) costs about $35 per month with no data cap. An additional $25 fee to the city pays for the cost of maintaining the physical network.
Tomorrow: Bonneville County’s public fiber revolution began in Idaho Falls, but it’s perhaps most famous for the model developed in Ammon, the small town on the outskirts. How a little sibling rivalry pushed even more innovation into the public fiber.
Bryan Clark is an Idaho-based opinion writer based in eastern Idaho.
This story was originally published July 6, 2022 04:00 AM.