Look at a map showing broadband Internet access in Idaho and you'll see broad swaths of online nothingness.
Add that to the many Idaho communities that have weak or otherwise limited service, and Idaho has a problem, Mike Field said.
"This is as essential as the railroads were in the 1850s or highways were in the 1950s: The communities that got them prospered, and the communities that didn't went down in size," said Field, coordinator for LinkIdaho, a federally funded initiative to expand broadband access and use throughout the state.
Field is also the executive director of the Idaho Rural Partnership, established by state law in 2007 to create a collaborative effort to improve economic and social conditions in rural Idaho.
"People need to connect with the outside world to sell products, to get information," he said. "They're going to have to have connectivity to be successful."
Quick, reliable online connections can help health care providers and emergency responders deliver crucial information where it needs to go.
People rely on the Internet to find jobs, take courses, keep in touch with loved ones, sell and buy things, and manage banking and other accounts. And when their only connection is weak, they do those things slowly, if at all.
Field estimates that about 85 percent of Idahoans have good access to some form of high-speed Internet, but that population is concentrated in the urban areas that make up a fraction of the state's land mass.
Scattered across the vast spaces that remain, rural Idahoans are often hard-pressed to communicate and do business in an increasingly online-centric world, he said.
Equalizing those residents' opportunities and access is a complicated task that encounters numerous challenges, from mountainous terrain to money.
Much of the focus of LinkIdaho has been to map broadband service across the state and identify gaps that need to be filled. Before 2009, no such statewide information was readily available, said Field and Brady Kraft, technical director of the Idaho Education Network, which extended broadband to every state high school between 2009 and 2011.
Many of Idaho's smallest communities rely on copper digital subscriber lines for Internet access. People who live more than a couple of miles outside a town are beyond the reach of DSL service, Field said. Likewise, communities too small to attract cable TV can't take advantage of that broadband service.
The Idaho Education Network launched a few months ahead of the wider broadband initiative and found that the Internet situation in "most of rural Idaho was very dismal," Kraft said. "We had multiple districts that had 256-kilobit DSL lines ... in one district, teachers could only check their email once a week, and they would sign up for it. Now the same school that had 256 kilobits has 4.6 megabits" — millions of bits versus thousands, producing a relative blaze of speed.
That has made schools the only source of reliable Internet in some parts of the state. LinkIdaho is working to broaden that reach, in part by better equipping the libraries that double as community hubs in tiny towns.
In the past two years, LinkIdaho has boosted connectivity at 55 public libraries identified as "the least well-connected in the state," said Idaho State Librarian Ann Joslin.
With $1.8 million in grants and nearly a million dollars in matching funds and in-kind services, the project has, among other things, provided computers and upgraded online connection speeds in those libraries.
That's the case in Bruneau, an Owyhee County hamlet of about 500 best known for its nearby sand dunes.
The library broadband project replaced the Bruneau Valley Library's five aging computers and made online connections seem downright speedy, Library Director Clara Morris said.
"I think we are getting more people in," she said. "And they are happy that they don't have to be waiting forever for it to download.
"Now our speed is 10 (megabits per second). Before, I think we were below 1."
Those before-and-after figures are about average for the 55 libraries in the broadband project, Joslin said. Other Treasure Valley-area communities included Grand View, Marsing and Wilder, plus some that don't fit most people's concept of remote: Caldwell, Nampa and Garden City. Their libraries made the cut because of the broadband grant's emphasis on reaching underserved populations such as low-income and minority families, Joslin said.
In addition to public-access computers — the grant paid for more than 500 statewide — residents may bring their laptops to use the libraries' fast wireless connections.
The grant is part of the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Project. The money also paid for online resources to help job-seekers, students and others, Joslin said. Those resources, including the Learning Express Library, are available at every Idaho library and to the public via the state library website.
Other grants are funding progress on key parts of the state's broadband initiative, health care/telemedicine and public safety/first responders, Field said. Both are realms in which enhanced communication over distances — video as well as voice — can save lives, he said.
The federal grants were authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the economic stimulus law. Funds for the broadband initiative total about $4.4 million over five years, according to LinkIdaho's website.
Cost remains an obstacle to further extending Idaho's broadband capacity, Field said. Digging trenches for cable or putting in new DSL lines are costly propositions that make it impractical for companies to extend service into areas with few potential customers.
"The bottom line is the bottom line," Field said. "A provider that is accountable to shareholders has to show a profit. That's where the crux lies. A lot of where it made economic sense is already done."
There's more than $7 million from related grants to help maximize broadband capacities for economic development, public safety, education, libraries and health care, Field said.
"We might need to help providers get a grant to facilitate extending broadband farther," he said.
Information from: Idaho Statesman