Faster broadband internet and less expensive cellular telephone service could be available in north central Idaho if two economic development groups succeed in winning a $4.5 million grant from the federal government.

Port of Lewiston commissioners pledged Wednesday to contribute $1.12 million in matching money if they receive the grant that would be awarded sometime in the next 45 to 60 days and help create 120 new jobs.

The port is working with the Clearwater Economic Development Association to obtain the money from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration to construct a 95-mile fiber optic line going from Moscow to Lewiston to Grangeville.

“It will address a major gap in north central Idaho that’s been kind of an ongoing challenge for Lewiston, Nez Perce County and the surrounding counties,” said Lewiston Port Manager David Doeringsfeld.

“It will create a redundant path for (the Port of Lewiston’s) network. It will provide greater opportunity for internet service providers to access (the area),” Doeringsfeld said. “We are ensuring a more competitive environment for service providers who offer broadband services and create more access for our community businesses and our residences.”

The port installed a 37-mile fiber optic network over the last five years that goes to sites in Lewiston including Vista Outdoor, Schweitzer Engineer Laboratories, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, Lewis-Clark State College and the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport.

That network is connected with one in Whitman County that reaches Idaho through a line that goes east into Nez Perce County from north of the Red Wolf Bridge. A private telecommunications company has a fiber-optic line that runs between Lewiston and Grangeville.

The proposed expansion would operate on the same model as the Port of Lewiston’s existing network. The port would sell space on the fiber-optic line at a flat rate to telecommunications companies that offer internet and cellphone service.

That could lower prices for consumers by increasing competition or give those companies capacity to add new features, Doeringsfeld said.

The port is able to back the addition because Idaho code allows it to work outside the port district of Nez Perce County to support economic development. Working across county lines will help make sure the region’s telecommunications infrastructure is adequate enough to fill a variety of needs, he said.

“Rural service and manufacturing businesses, medical clinics, schools and emergency services cannot grow or meet service demands without a robust system,” according to a letter the port submitted to the federal Economic Development Administration as part of the grant process.

The coronavirus pandemic has magnified the challenge, the letter stated.

“Health professionals are utilizing telehealth conferencing for preliminary diagnosis of patients and cannot afford lost time when a system is not working because of broadband traffic issues,” according to the letter. “People working from home and students continuing their education online are struggling. There is insufficient broadband in most areas of the region for this volume of communication.”

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

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