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Spotty Internet Access In Rural Oregon Could Create Educational Gaps This Fall

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Annie Spratt via Unsplash
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Internet access will be critical for school education this fall. But for many in rural Oregon, broadband service is still unreliable. The gaps could widen the educational divide between urban and rural schools.

Michael Carter has been on the job as the new superintendent for Lake County School District No. 7 for just a month. Faced with the task of developing multiple scenarios for how to hold classes this fall, he has his hands full.

Carter describes gaps in internet access as an equity issue for students in Lakeview.

“In some places in the community it’s really good, people can access [it],” he says. “In other places it’s really spotty.”

Carter estimates about 70% of their families have internet access at home.

According to a recent report about broadband internet access for the group Business Oregon, about 40% of rural residents across the state have no internet at all. The same report showed approximately 1.17 million Oregonians live in areas that are unconnected or underserved with internet.

“Just like rural electrification back in the 20s, we’ve got to figure out a plan that gets it to that last house, down that last little road in rural areas if we really want to make sure that there’s equity across the state,” says state Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.

Roblan is a member of the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council and represents a district with wide discrepancies in internet access. While there’s no easy fix for this infrastructure problem by the time school starts in September, he says adding more internet hotspots is one short-term solution.

“We have to get more hotspots around so that people can go sit in their car and get access or make sure that all schools are connected,” Roblan says.

In Lakeview, Superintendent Carter says they’ve purchased new Chromebooks for any student without a computer at home. But he adds internet access is also a financial issue for many households and even the best internet connectivity is a barrier if families can’t afford it.

For now, they’re hoping to install internet hotspots from the district in businesses in different parts of town with parking lot access.

“That’s going to be the key for us, at least have access,” he says. “Is it going to make it accessible for everybody? No. This also shows that we do need to in our community really focus on getting high-speed internet to everyone.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.