With some humility, and perhaps some chutzpah, I have a proposal for Idaho lawmakers. I want to propose that Idaho should be the first state to make the internet a privately held utility. My idea has been formulated after seeing preliminary reports presented in Davos, reading MIT Tech Review for the past year, and generally trying to keep up with futurist thinking. I have floated it by the Republican candidates for governor, at a legislative gathering in Boise, and to friends. I will start with Democrats in this column.
I am suggesting that the Legislature should establish a commission to study the feasibility of allowing the state’s internet providers to merge into one regulated industry. Please note that I am not proposing state ownership. I am not championing a takeover of existing equities. I am saying that the state should create a monopoly similar to the old AT&T (Ma Bell), the electric company and the gas company.
One politician I talked to immediately referenced the call for net neutrality, but that issue is only tangentially related to the proposal. I believe a utility is in Idaho’s interest because it will help to create a more resilient rural, agriculture-based economy. It will also provide the technically advanced infrastructure necessary to creating new business opportunities throughout the state.
There are already several companies installing fiber optic cable within the state. Century Link is using its existing infrastructure to provide DSL. The problem with these efforts is that advanced technology goes where population is. We recently had a fiscal debacle with Connect Idaho. Good idea, wrong funding mechanism. A utility can raise capital efficiently. Access to funding allows a company to be dynamic around technical advance. It is technical advantage which is the paramount reason for studying this concept.
We have talked about education and tele-medicine. In addition, we must talk about bandwidth, speed and reliability. Forget blockchain computing’s crypto currency (Bitcoin). The way of the future for blockchain is secure accounting and information transmittal. IBM is even advertising its block chain computing on TV. Every technological advance will require more computing power, more connectivity, as well as more communication power. While most of us may concentrate on personal usage, business usage is what will create resiliency in our economy.
The internet is the new railroad. Advanced access to the internet will determine whether a community lives or dies. If we want to have a robust rural economy, we must rapidly connect and have good access to ever larger amounts of pertinent data. Our basalt aquifers should provide water indefinitely as long as it is managed even while the great Ogallala aquifer is drying up and its sand is collapsing. We need to give agriculture every advantage as we stand to profit from our fortunate geography. There is so much technology on the horizon, and the advantage will go to the connected. Everything from teleconferencing to deep analytical data will allow producers access to business needs without leaving the field.
The desire of the millennial and generation Z young people is often distance working and/or small-town living. We have the small towns in Idaho. Now we need to provide the internet infrastructure for telecommuting work or new business that is dependent on connectivity, not just for sales, but for data. I see the result of this thinking in Lusk, Wyo. They laid fiber optic in the ‘90s, and storefronts are full.
The social scientist in me sees social advantage, but my business brain sees profit! With strong, reliable internet connectivity, there are myriad opportunities for business growth. Security through the establishment of intra-nets for various entities, teaching new ways to use computing power, secure “business hubs” for small business. All of this is possible now, but only where the internet is reliable, and bandwidth is adequate. When I read the writings of even the most conservative futurists, I am blown away by what will be possible.
My proposal is modest because I am urging only exploration and analysis. This proposal has complexity I cannot address in this venue. However, I believe strongly that future Idahoans would thank us for establishing this infrastructure. What do we have to lose by considering it?