Increased internet access in the John Day area took another step forward as the Grant County Court held a hearing at their Nov. 22 meeting on an ordinance which would ratify the creation of the Grant County Digital Network Coalition.
Sixteen people addressed the court on the matter, with 13 in support and one opposed. The ordinance will come back for a second hearing tentatively on Dec. 13 but otherwise on Dec. 27. The court will vote on the ordinance after the second hearing.
Ground rules describing how the coalition will be set up and each members’ obligations and benefits — including how the county could quit the quasi-governmental organization — will be provided in an upcoming memorandum of understanding, Grant County Judge Scott Myers said.
John Morris asked the court about recent news regarding a proposal by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to dismantle Obama administration regulations protecting net neutrality. As owners of a broadband cable and distribution system, the coalition would be an internet service provider governed by net neutrality regulations.
Myers said answers to that question, as well as the cost and design of the new network, are not known at this time. The first step was to establish the coalition, which would become effective Jan. 1. Coalition members would develop plans for how the new broadband network would be built and operated, he said.
Frances Preston, who said she supported the coalition, asked why the Forest Service and Blue Mountain Hospital — major benefactors of increased internet access — were not members of the coalition.
“I’m not sure why they aren’t included,” Myers said. “It might depend on their use.”
Ryan Nehl, the Malheur National Forest deputy supervisor, said the Forest Service was very interested in the benefits a new fiber cable could bring to the John Day area. He also noted that the fiber cable to be run from Burns to John Day would cross Forest Service land.
Jim Sproul said he wanted to see the benefits of the new broadband network extended to rural areas outside of John Day and Seneca — two of the coalition’s members. Prairie City and Canyon City had opted out of joining the coalition.
Several people described how family members had to take turns using internet at their homes, including for business or educational purposes, because of slow access speed.
Zach Williams said he ordinarily opposed the idea of government competing with private business, but in this case, he saw the need for government to step in as a way to retain business and grow the economy.
Ken Olson, the president and CEO of Old West Federal Credit Union and a member of the task force working on the proposed broadband network, described the tremendous internet access available at public schools in Pendleton.
“It blows your mind,” he said.
He noted that streaming movies represented only 5 percent of the opportunities offered by broadband internet access.
“If there are things we’re going to spend money on, this should be one,” he said.
In other county court news, Myers and Commissioner Boyd Britton commented on their attendance at the Farm Bureau meeting at Grant County Regional Airport on Nov. 10.
Myers said he wasn’t convinced that changes in state land-use regulations presented at the meeting would be good for Eastern Oregon. He said he was concerned that urban growth under the new regulations could remove valuable farm land from the economy.
Britton said he agreed, but he was also concerned about old farm families that had come on hard times and needed to sell portions of their farm land to make ends meet. He also said he was concerned the Freedom To Farm Act could be diluted by the new regulations. He called the matter another example of the “urban-rural divide.”
• The court unanimously approved a request by Grant County Justice of the Peace Kathy Stinnett to purchase software for a LEDS-certified terminal. This would eliminate the current practice of using sensitive hand-delivered hard copies of driving records that later must be shredded. The Oregon Law Enforcement Data System software would also provide information needed to reach a decision on a citation, Stinnett said. Sometimes she has taken a defendant’s word on their past driving record, she said.
• The court unanimously approved funding for mandatory training requested by Grant County Victim Assistance Director Andrea Officer and to offset a grant shortage.
• The court also unanimously approved a lease agreement with the Oregon Department of Transportation for a county-owned radio tower on Fall Mountain.
• The court’s next meeting will be Dec. 13.