rural broadband
Slade Gonzalez, right, Nino Torres and Jade Gonzalez play the Xbox on Thursday while Cassie Gonzalez watches at their home in Hollister. With rural broadband they can play video games live and stream movies easier now that they have access to fiber optic lines. (ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS) 
ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS

HOLLISTER • From their tiny town midway between Twin Falls and Jackpot, Nev., teens Slade and Jade Gonzalez clutched multi-buttoned game controllers Thursday, exchanging gunfire with their online counterparts in the Rocky Top state of Tennessee.

Through the technology of a broadband Internet connection, this Hollister family can interact with people around the world through their Xbox 360 to chat while playing games like “Call of Duty.”

But the fast download speeds that allow users to instantly stream movies and extract large files from the web are still relatively new to rural Idaho towns like Hollister. In other parts of south-central Idaho — including large swaths of the Northside counties — Netflix and iTunes remain out of reach.

The Federal Communications Commission estimated in November that 100 million U.S. residents lack access to wired broadband Internet service.

Another study notes that 16 percent of all Idaho households have no such access, including more than 22,000 Magic Valley residents.

The gaps in Idaho’s wired broadband coverage peak locally at 47.8 percent of Lincoln County residents, according to the federally operated National Broadband Map. In more populated counties, where the infrastructure to bring high-speed Internet is more established, the gaps are smaller. For instance, only 7.7 percent of Twin Falls County residents lack wired broadband access.

All but 1,163 Magic Valley residents have access to wireless data service of some sort, though at generally much slower speeds and less capacity than wired offerings.

While they’re not there yet, Idaho communications companies continue to build the infrastructure needed to bring high-speed Internet access to every Idahoan, as we increasingly rely on it to do our banking, to teach us new skills, and to entertain us.

“It definitely opens up your world,”said Cassie Gonzalez, matriarch of the Hollister home.

In Hollister, the Gonzalez family is served by Filer Mutual Telephone Co., which has spent millions to upgrade its service by laying hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable. Gary Earl, plant manager for Filer Mutual, estimated the company has covered nearly $10 million in upgrades in the past few years, and it will spend another $3 million through 2016.

The company’s expansion efforts should be welcome, as Idaho ranks 48th in the country for broadband speeds, according to the National Broadband Map.

Two years ago, Gonzalez said, her family relied on the 30-minute trip to Twin Falls just to watch a movie. Only dial-up Internet access and over-the-air television signals were offered in Hollister. Now they have Netflix. It’s a boon for local movie buffs, since Hollywood Video and Blockbuster both went under and left Twin Falls last year.

Underserved areas within Filer Mutual’s territory, like Hollister, received some of the company’s first fiber-optic cable, which is buried underground and not attached to utility poles. Now, the company push is to connect every household to the faster fiber network, Earl said.

Rupert-based Project Mutual Telephone Co. recently made the jump to fiber optic as well. Company president Charlie Creason noted 90 percent of PMT’s service area is fed from fiber nodes. Syringa Networks CEO Greg Lowe said the Boise-based company is continuing to cut through lava rock fields to lay 70 miles of fiber as part of a multimillion-dollar expansion to communities like Bliss, Gooding, Shoshone, Dietrich and Wendell. Initially, institutions such as hospitals, schools and businesses will benefit, while residential service may be a way off.

In Idaho, wireless, cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) make up the bulk of broadband services. Fiber-optic options barely reach 3 percent of the state’s population, but Idaho’s fiber-optic network is growing despite the high cost.

The jump from traditional copper transmission line to fiber isn’t cheap for companies to make, as fiber line can cost up to three times the amount of copper. Rural customers can expect to pay monthly service rates of $40-$50 for fiber-optic service, similar to the cost of access within a larger city.

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So why are companies jumping on the fiber-optic wave? “Future proofing.”

FMT, PMTand Syringa recognize fiber as the future, as its potential bandwidth capability — the larger the bandwidth, the more people can access high-speed service without slowing down the entire system — is considerably greater than currently prevalent modes of delivery.

The reason is because of the material. Fiber-optic cables consist of fine strands of molded glass, and digital signals are transferred along the line as beams of light. Traditionally, information is carried as electric currents along bonded copper wiring.

Lowe said bonded copper is only good for transmission speeds of 6-9 megabytes per second, while fiber can reach speeds of up to 100 Mb/s.

Most residential plans only call for 1.5-3 Mb/s, which is fast enough to download the latest Lady Gaga song in 10-20 seconds. But large entities running internal networks — schools, government offices, hospitals, businesses — need more bandwidth to maintain a speedy connection. Syringa Networks’ new fiber route, called a backbone route, will have a 400 gigabytes per second capacity. Work is expected to wrap up in the summer.

The hope of expanding services is that eventually all residents, workers and students across the Magic Valley will have the same, previously impossible opportunities to check their bank statements online, play games with strangers who share similar interests, and visit distant family members through a webcam, from wherever they choose.

Bradley Guire may be reached at 735-3380.

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