By Cameron Rasmusson
Sandpoint has a speed problem—and it has nothing to do with streets.
For the last several years, public officials and private residents alike have explored options to establish more consistent access to high speed Internet. Economic development experts have advised local governments for years that businesses of the near future will depend on fast, reliable connections to keep their revenues flowing.
“The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that the demand for bandwidth is doubling every two years and that currently, the typical download speeds needed by business will exceed [50 megabyte-per-second download speeds], which is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in Sandpoint,” said Aaron Qualls, Sandpoint director of planning and economic development. “According to a recent economic assessment of Bonner County, Sandpoint lags behind the nation and other like communities for affordable, high speed internet access.”
It’s a problem with vast implications. Earlier this year, for instance, the Lake Pend Oreille School District scrambled to establish alternative Internet service when previous provider Idaho Education Network drowned in a sea of controversy and accusations of government cronyism. Families, meanwhile, are increasingly reliant on strong Internet service for high-definition video streaming and device connectivity.
“In the very near future, the ‘Internet of things’ will be upon us and smart devices will be ubiquitous in every home and business,” said Charles Manning, CEO of Kochava. “These devices will need fast and reliable internet connectivity and will change the way we live.”
Likewise, businesses rely on snappy download speeds to run complicated data networks or computer operations, a topic on which Manning is very familiar. Kochava provides analytic services for companies using mobile advertising, and while Manning is committed to maintaining Sandpoint headquarters, the lack of quality Internet access has been a challenge.
“Our infrastructure (servers and associated processing equipment) is located in a data center outside of the area simply due to the fact that here in Sandpoint, we don’t have a redundant, high speed fiber connection to the world,” he said. “Proximity to a data center would accelerate and enhance the growth of new businesses in the area.”
“[Local Internet options are] overpriced, slow and at times, unreliable,” Manning added. “I think that a bit more competition in the marketplace would serve us well.”
But like any public infrastructure project, there’s always a financial cost. Complicating the matter further with an Internet network is the need for a company to offer ongoing service, maintenance and customer assistance. For six years, the city of Sandpoint, as well as other Bonner County municipalities, have courted communications companies to take up the mantle of service provider in a public-private Internet service project.
After several false starts, the city is now taking the matter into its own hands; council members budgeted for the city to roll out its own fiber, an undertaking city workers are engaged in for the next several weeks. By the project’s end, Internet infrastructure will be in place from City Hall to the businesses clustered near Sandpoint Airport.
“The city of Moscow has been running its own fiber for years, so we picked their brain a lot on this,” said Mayor Carrie Logan.
It’s no wonder the city is taking initiative on the project. Over years of effort to improve Sandpoint’s Internet access, promising relationships with private businesses have fizzled over time.
The Bonner County Economic Development Corporation, a local agency committed to enhancing the region’s career options and quality of life, was a major player in improved Internet access from the beginning. Under the leadership of then-director Karl Dye, the corporation facilitated several meetings with public officials and business leaders throughout the region. The vision was comprehensive Internet service that stretched across Pend Oreille communities.
Perhaps the most promising moment in the push for fiber arrived in 2012, when Missoula-based Blackfoot Communications sat down for discussions as a potential service provider. The partnership developed to the point where parties invited the public to an informational meeting in September. But then progress abruptly halted.
“[Blackfoot] bought something down south in Idaho, and it just didn’t work [from a financial perspective],” said Logan.
While the city has finally pulled the trigger on establishing a fiber network, the issue of securing an Internet service provider still remains, according to Public Works Director Kody Van Dyk. Local officials are in talks with Zayo, a bandwidth infrastructure company, to establish service or connect up with another ISP company.
It’s a step in the right direction when it comes to providing business owners and residents with more options. According to Qualls, local officials will likely revisit the issue at an economic development conference hosted by the city, the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce and the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation this November.
It’s a healthy conversation to have, according to Manning. Without the ability to properly harness the power of technology, a world of missed opportunities for Sandpoint are only years away.
“Access to affordable high speed internet is simply a requirement in the world today,” Manning said. “If we hope to continue to attract and develop high quality innovative businesses in our area, we need to prioritize this issue.”
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