A new high-speed internet option is moving forward for parts of Grant County.
The John Day City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Nov. 15 ratifying creation of the Grant County Digital Network Coalition, an intergovernmental agency to manage a new publicly owned broadband network in Grant County.
“This is great,” Mayor Ron Lundbom said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Upon approval by the Oregon Secretary of State, the coalition will become active Jan. 1, John Day City Manager Nick Green said.
Green expected the Seneca City Council to adopt a similar ordinance that night and for the Grant County Court to do so on Nov. 22. Each party to the agreement will appoint a member to represent their jurisdiction on the coalition’s board of directors.
Prairie City and Canyon City opted to not join the coalition, Green said.
“We won’t extend service to those two communities,” he said, adding that the communities joining the coalition will have a greater share of the system’s revenue but also take on more risk.
The backbone of the network in Grant County will be a high-capacity fiber cable installed from Burns to the John Day Valley. The state legislature provided $1.8 million for the project, which according to an estimate by OFS Optics was sufficient to run the line from Burns to John Day, Green told the Eagle.
One of the route’s hurdles involves obtaining rights-of-way through Forest Service land. The task force working on the proposal has negotiated with Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative about hanging the cable on the co-op’s power poles, but no price has been established, Green told the Grant County Court on Nov. 8.
A big question for many has been how broadband access would be distributed from the main cable to individual homes and businesses. Commissioner Boyd Britton asked Green if the new broadband network would connect with rural homes in the county by underground fiber or wireless.
The answer depended on a number of variables, Green said, including the density of homes in an area and whether the coalition that will build and operate the network can obtain state or federal funding.
There are advantages to using fiber, Green told the Eagle.
“Fiber is more expensive on the capital side but much lower cost on operations and maintenance,” he said. “You also get lower capacity (with wireless). At least in John Day, we intend to explore both wireless and wireline options as well as services from various providers.”
When Oregon Telephone Corporation replaced aging copper wires hanging from poles in Mt. Vernon with buried fiber-optic lines in 2005, it was supported with a $10 million federal loan from the Rural Utilities Service.
Directional-boring machines were used to run cables under the John Day River and Beech Creek. Once the cables were buried, crews connected fiber-optic lines to customers’ homes, providing better service than offered in Portland, Ortelco manager Stephen Schweitzer said at the time.
All this came at no cost to Ortelco’s customers. The $10 million, five-year project continued into Hereford/Unity, Dufur, Dayville and finally Prairie City.
Ortelco General Manager DeeDee Kluser said the company is continuing with its “fiber to the home/premise” program. Homes and businesses along Main Street in John Day have been connected, and crews will soon be running aerial fiber in the Hillcrest, Seventh Street and Charolais Heights neighborhoods and west of John Day.
Ortelco has also run fiber south along Highway 395 into Canyon City as far as the courthouse, with homes connected along Humbolt Street. Kluser said additional capacity will be run along the highway from the high school to the courthouse.
Ortelco originally began offering high-speed internet for business customers and was surprised by the rapidly growing demand by residential customers.
As for more rural communities and customers in Grant County, Kluser said the company’s goal is to provide internet service to some areas by using wireless. Running fiber to Seneca, Long Creek and Monument, however, is beyond Ortelco’s capabilities for now, she said.
“We’re expanding using our own manpower and funds,” she said, adding that while Ortelco’s monthly fees are higher than what the coalition’s broadband network might offer, “our install fees are very low.”
Green presented two models to the county court for how a public broadband network could be established in Grant County.
Sandy, Oregon, which has the best network in the state, used no tax dollars in building its citywide network — it was paid for by user fees. The network is run as a public utility overseen by the city council.
SandyNet began with DSL and wireless in 2001 and began to switch to fiber in 2008. The network has never seen an outage in eight years, according to Sandy’s IT manager, Joe Knapp. Green said Knapp has visited John Day to talk about Sandy’s network.
The broadband network in Ammon, Idaho, is also publicly owned, but it was built neighborhood by neighborhood with multiple local improvement districts, similarly to how sidewalks are funded.
Ammon offers an open-access network, and users can switch internet service providers within seconds through software. Green told the Eagle that the task force is considering working with EntryPoint, the company that developed the open access network used by Ammon.
Green told the court that costs to connect fiber to homes ran about $3,000 in Ammon and $4,000 in Sandy.
Ammon offers 100 megabits per second symmetrical (upload and download service) for about $45 per month, and Sandy offers 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second symmetrical for about $60 per month.
For comparison, Ortelco offers up to 100 mbps for $120 per month, and CenturyLink offers 10 mbps DSL service for about $45 per month. Green told the Eagle the task force’s target is to start at 100 mbps and go up to 1 gbps. No specific prices were cited, but Green has said the proposed network could offer lower prices than the private sector.
Green told the court he wasn’t opposed to a public-private partnership, but he said the private sector has failed so far to provide quality internet service to many area residents and businesses. He also said Ortelco and CenturyLink lack the capital needed to run broadband to rural communities, such as Seneca or Long Creek.
When asked if communities could opt out after they joined the coalition, Green said yes.
“If it doesn’t pencil out, we can back out,” he said. “We would only use state money.”