Idaho House Bill Threatens Funding Option for Community Network Investment

The open access network in Ammon, Idaho, has been celebrated as visionary and viewed as a potential model for other communities seeking competitive local Internet access markets. A bill in the state legislature, however, aims to restrict local communities' ability to reproduce the Ammon Model, or any other publicly owned network, by imposing new restrictions on local efforts.

Read the text of the bill here.

Removing a Local Funding Option

H 490, introduced by Rep. Ron Mendive from Coeur d'Alene, states specifically that local governments have the authority to take the necessary steps to develop Internet networks and to offer services to the general public. Provisions in the bill that dictate how projects are financed, operated, and managed, however, transform the bill into a "muni killer" says Bruce Patterson, Ammon's technology director.

In a recent Idaho Business Review article (subscription required), Patterson described the language of H 490:

“On its face, it claims to authorize cities to have the authority to finance, build, and operate a communications network and offer a communications service, but each of the restrictions that follow make it impossible for a city to actually do those things. It is like telling your child: ‘Sure, you can play outside, just don’t leave the house.'”

Large, national Internet service providers have millions of dollars of capital to invest in new infrastructure wherever they see a business case to do so. The situation is different for local governments interested in developing fiber optic infrastructure when national companies concentrate investment elsewhere. Places like Ammon have had to think creatively to fund necessary projects. By using local improvement district (LID) funding, the City of Ammon Fiber Optics has expanded in neighborhoods where residents and businesses want to connect to the open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. H 490 explicitly prohibits LID funding for municipal networks.

In 2018, the City of Ammon Fiber Optics released a video describing the LID process as they were preparing for an earlier expansion:

As a result of Ammon's investment, people and businesses that have chosen to connect to the network have the ability to choose from four Internet access providers that deliver services via the publicly owned infrastructure. In addition to better rates for those who have connected to Ammon Fiber Optics, other providers in the area now offer competitive rates and better services.

Watch that Bill

H 490, which you can read here [PDF], includes more provisions that will likely discourage other communities in the state from investing in publicly owned infrastructure for better connectivity, such as Emmett. The community of about 6,500 people has incrementally developed a fiber optic network with long-term plans to connect every premise. If H 490 passes, their ability to do so will be compromised due to the state's imposition on local funding options.

The bill has been referred to the House Local Government Committee where Rep. Mendive is the Committee Chair. Follow the bill's movement through the Idaho Legislature here.

Ammon Presses On

Learn more about Ammon and the network they've developed and continue to refine by listening to episodes 259207173, and 86 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with Bruce Patterson and people who use the network for a short film we produced with Next Century Cities that tells the story of Ammon.