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Feds giving Oregon another $26 million for internet access

John Schnobrich

A southern Oregon tribe and providers serving rural swaths of the coast and Willamette Valley are among the latest recipients of federal grants from the Biden administration’s $90 billion investment in broadband internet access.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week it was devoting about $26 million to projects in Oregon. The lion’s share of the funding is a $25 million grant to Pioneer Connect, an internet and telecommunications provider serving about 1,300 square miles of the Willamette Valley and the central Oregon Coast.

Pioneer Connect General Manager Jim Rennard said the grant will cover the full cost of extending fiber-optic cables to about 1,530 locations — mostly homes — in a 350 square-mile area of small, Coast Range communities including Tidewater and Triangle Lake.

“This wouldn’t have happened without this funding,” Rennard said.

About 79% of Oregonians have access to high-speed internet at home, compared to a national average of 71%, according to a recent report by the Oregon Broadband Office. The high cost of laying fiber cables or otherwise shoring up broadband access in rural and tribal communities poses serious challenges. So do the state’s remote expanses and geological barriers like mountain ranges, said the office’s program manager Nick Batz.

Rennard expects Pioneer Connect to begin construction after about a year of engineering and planning. The service provider already received $25 million through the USDA’s ReConnect program to extend internet access to about 1,500 people in rural Benton and Lincoln counties, Rennard said. Construction on the first phase of that project could begin sometime next year, he said.

The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, which is headquartered in Roseburg, will receive $482,000 through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal BroadBand Connectivity Program.

Lindsay Campman, a spokesperson for the tribe, said the money will jump-start planning for internet and cellular connections across rural Douglas County. The project’s focus will be a tribal community of about 50 households in rural Myrtle Creek, she said.

Campman said the COVID-19 pandemic made clear that internet and cell service is essential for all members of the tribe, especially kids who need to tap into remote learning platforms for school. She said it’s common that parents have to drive their kids to Roseburg to access the internet.

“It’s terrible,” Campman said. “We want them to have the exact same access to broadband as they would anywhere else in a bigger city.”

She said that projects funded by the new federal grant will take several years to plan and build.

The Canby Telephone Association also received a $735,000 grant to help pay for a project routing fiber to about 25 households near Mount Angel in Marion County.

Federal funding has poured into Oregon as part of the Biden administration’s Internet for All Initiative. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $65 billion to expand high-speed internet access and bridge the digital divide, particularly in rural and tribal communities. Advocates and White House officials say internet access is a necessity for employment, school, health care and more facets of modern life.

Internet deserts dot the state outside of the Willamette Valley and the populous Interstate-5 corridor. Parts of central and eastern Oregon have especially high concentrations of households that can’t access the internet, according to the report.

About $700 million in funding

Earlier rounds of federal assistance under the Biden administration include a $30 million grant for broadband services in Clackamas County; about $40 million of combined grants and loans in Wasco County; and grants to seven tribal governments including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which received almost $7 million for fiber installations to connect 936 tribal households.

Along with the direct grants to tribal governments and service providers, Congress earmarked billions of dollars for state governments to invest in high-speed broadband. Oregon expects about $689 million.

Batz said the funding won’t have a direct impact soon. His office is writing required planning documents, including an initial plan for spending the money due in December.

But he said the federal resources have already allowed his office to scale up and do on-the-ground research, including focus groups and outreach events across the state.

“I would argue that’s a huge impact already, and it will pay dividends down the road,” Batz said.

Oregon aims to connect 100% of households to broadband but concedes that the current federal funding won’t be enough to get the job done. Current funding “will deliver broadband to most but not all of the unserved and underserved addresses in Oregon,” according to the state office report.

According to Batz, the cost of connecting all needed locations with fiber cable — which is the “strong preference of the federal government” — is about $2.9 billion.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.