Broadband bill has Idaho in mind

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There are roughly a zillion bills discussed each year by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Give or take a couple.

Most never get out of the discussion stage, and even the ones that do rarely have any impact on your day-to-day life.

However Ö

There is a bill chugging along that could change a lot of things for North Idahoans who donít live within a golf shot of Interstate 90.

And thatís a lot of folks.

H.R. 4824 has the usual fancy name ó Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act of 2018 ó but the heart of it is about improving faster, more efficient internet service for everyone who lives out in the country.

Itís no secret that the farther you get from an urban area, the less likely itís going to be that youíll have zippy broadband.

Assuming you have internet at all.

ďRural broadband has far-reaching effects for both urban and rural America, creating efficiencies in health care, education, agriculture, energy, and commerce, and enhancing the quality of life for citizens across the country,Ē said Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive officer of NTCA, the Rural Broadband Association.

Bloomfield was testifying at a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands, specifically about H.R. 4824 ó a bill introduced by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah.

Bloomfield reeled off plenty of statistics concerning the number of people affected by the issue of rural internet service.

For instance, rural consumers are responsible for more than 15 percent of all internet-driven transactions ó approximately 10.8 billion internet-driven transactions.

The estimated value of rural online transactions is nearly $1.4 trillion per year, Bloomfield said.

The thing to remember here is that while Rep. Curtis might be from Utah (and made several references to problems in his own state), this bill could have been aimed straight at Idaho.

Letís face it, MOST of our state is rural, and that includes North Idaho.

The obvious question hanging over these hearings was why H.R. 4824 is necessary in the first place.

COMPANIES can make far more money setting up broadband facilities in high-density urban areas than they can in vast rural settings.

Thatís basic math.

But Curtis, Bloomfield and others made it clear that you canít expect private industry to go the extra mile without some help.

Specifically, broadband companies have had to deal with an almighty tangle of federal regulations, headlined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Bloomfield made it plain that nobody wants to ruin the national landscape, but simply streamlining the permitting process would save internet companies enough money that moves to rural areas would become sensible.

The guts of this bill would transfer inspections of rights-of-way from multiple federal agencies to individual states.

In many cases, easements and areas waiting for federal NEPA approval have already been found in compliance. There are currently electrical towers and telephone poles on plenty of this land.

So why, Curtis asked, canít a state grant access to internet providers in cases like that?

His answer is H.R. 4824, which passed in the House Committee on Natural Resources this week, and continues on its journey ó hopefully ó toward becoming law.

We donít pretend to be political geniuses here, but sometimes the issue is so obvious that we feel pretty safe in speaking up.

A whole lot of folks in North Idaho would stand to gain if rural broadband companies could do some faster, more efficient business ó instead of spending years waiting for permits.

How about if Congress just passes this one without a fuss?

Letís get on with it.

ēēē

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. A Brand New Day appears Wednesday through Saturday each week.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com.

Twitter: @BrandNewDayCDA

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