One of the biggest tasks facing the Grant County Digital Network Coalition, in addition to securing financing and solving technical infrastructure problems, is gaining the support of people in Grant County.
The coalition board discussed steps to achieving that support at its Nov. 20 meeting — including hiring a Eugene-based firm to develop a logo and marketing strategy and preparing for a Dec. 18 town hall meeting.
Too often, news about broadband is too technical for the public, and the board needs help with messaging and creating talking points, board member Brandon Smith said.
Chairman Josh Walker said much of the initial negativity about the coalition stemmed from a false rumor that the network would use Grant County road funds to pay for new infrastructure.
Walker said what he hears now from people are questions about how soon broadband will become available in their neighborhoods. But the coalition still needs more support, and he suggested finding people in the community who could provide testimonials in support of improving internet access.
Board member Dan Becker recalled early opposition to the digital network coalition and noted that many people don’t understand the need for broadband in the county. Sam Palmer will be sworn in as a new county commissioner in January, and a campaign to build support for the coalition should be in place by early next year, Becker said.
An important message is that the coalition is a state-funded agency that is not using local taxpayer funds, said John Day City Manager Nick Green, the coalition’s executive director.
The current internet infrastructure serving Grant County is a patchwork quilt of different companies utilizing copper phone lines, optical fiber cable and satellite, Green said. Some communities, such as Prairie City and Mt. Vernon, have a good fiber infrastructure and residents there don’t see a need to improve internet access, while other areas have poor service or no access at all, he said.
The board agreed to spend up to $20,000 for logo ideas and marketing support from ECONorthwest, a consulting firm hired by John Day to help develop a comprehensive economic development strategy for the city, and Bell & Funk, a marketing agency working with ECONorthwest.
Funded by state and federal grants, the city plans to hold several town hall meetings as part of the public process for developing the economic strategy. The coalition could piggyback onto one of the town hall meetings next year, Green suggested.
The board also reviewed plans for the coalition’s Dec. 18 town hall meeting at the Grant County Regional Airport. The board had hoped to know if the coalition was awarded a $3 million federal Community Connect grant by then, but there was still no word from Washington, Green said.
The meeting would start as a work session for the board and expand from that, Green said. A variety of internet companies providing DSL, fiber and satellite service would be invited, along with representatives from public agencies, he said. Green said he planned to negotiate with these companies at the meeting.
The coalition will need to rely on a variety of technologies to improve internet access across the county, Green said. Some locations — such as isolated homes at the end of a long dirt road — may be served by wireless internet because running fiber in those cases would be cost prohibitive.
ViaSat, which has been invited to the Dec. 18 town hall, recently won a Connect America Fund 2 award and will provide 10,000 high-speed broadband connections in Oregon. Green said his new home in John Day will utilize ViaSat because no fiber has been run to that neighborhood.
The coalition is one of 124 applicants vying for $30 million in Community Connect grant funding, Green said, but Congress recently made another $600 million available for communities to close the digital divide in rural America.
With a bigger pot of federal money available, the coalition’s chances for future grants should improve, Green said. By that time, the coalition will have infrastructure in place that will strengthen future applications, he said.
That reasoning was applied in the board’s action vote to move ahead with a $47,000 fiber lateral that would connect the coalition’s network hub in the John Day Fire Hall to Grant Union Junior-Senior High School.
Green noted that after committing about $400,000 to the match for the Community Connect grant, the coalition would still have about $1.3 million of the state appropriation it received in 2017.
The lateral is a short run that could be completed in one day’s work, and the Grant County Education Service District would become the coalition’s first internet service provider, Green said.
This relationship with the district would allow the coalition to connect its network to the Oregon Fiber Partnership academic infrastructure once the backbone fiber is run from John Day to Burns, Green said. The district also has agreed to host a backup station at their building for the new Grant County 911 dispatch system, Green said.
The board approved issuing a request for bids for construction of the lateral on Nov. 26. The engineering drawings are complete, and the construction deadline is March 1.