New federal grant applications, plans to run a fiber line to the northwest part of Grant County and the establishment of a statewide fiber network partnership are generating optimism by the local agency organized to improve internet access in Grant County.
The Grant County Digital Network Coalition will update last year’s application for grant funding to run a main fiber line from John Day to Seneca and try again, the board decided at its Feb. 19 meeting.
The coalition learned in December they were not a recipient of a $2.9 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Connect grant. A total of 124 project applications were submitted, and 19 projects were awarded.
The coalition had spent $93,000 developing the grant application and planned to come up with the $450,000 match using the $1.8 million appropriation the city of John Day had received from the legislature in 2017. The goal was to leverage the appropriation into larger grant-based funding.
The Community Connect grant program this year is expected to attract hundreds of applicants during the 60-day submission window, but the Agriculture Department will only be able to finance a small fraction of those applicants, said Nick Green, the coalition’s executive director.
Green said the coalition’s chances for approval are better this year because the coalition is organized and operating, the co-location facility in the John Day Fire Hall has been constructed, T-Mobile has proposed cell towers in the project area and the coalition has anticipated service provider agreements with Oregon Telephone Corporation and CenturyLink.
The board also agreed to apply for a USDA ReConnect grant. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the new broadband program for rural areas in December, offering up to $600 million in loans and grant funding. Approved projects must establish internet access speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and 3 mbps upload.
“Community Connect for 2019 is very similar to the 2018 program application we submitted,” Green told the Eagle. “ReConnect is an entirely new program, and it has a different set of rules.”
Green criticized the ReConnect program’s scoring system, where connecting pre-subscribed farms is given one point each up to 20 points total while health care centers are given up to 15 points. There are no health care facilities in the coalition’s proposed project area.
In addition, the ReConnect program requires a 25 percent match, while the Community Connect grant requires a 15 percent match, Green told the Eagle. The coalition will use funding it received from the state in 2017 to pay for the matches, Green said.
The board also agreed to move forward with a professional services agreement with CTC Technology and Energy of Maryland to assist in drafting the grant applications up to $12,000 to revamp the Community Connect application and up to $40,000 to prepare the ReConnect application.
On Feb. 5, the coalition board agreed to issue a notice of intent to award Blue Mountain Telecom of Walla Walla, Washington, a $33,333 contract to run fiber from the fire hall to the Grant County Education Service District offices on South Canyon Boulevard in John Day. This will enable the new 911 dispatch center in the fire hall to utilize ESD’s internet provider service.
A similar project calls for running a 12-fiber cable from the city hall in Seneca, which has poor internet access, to the Seneca School, which has ESD service. Commstructure Consulting of Oregon City estimated the cost of the lateral at $4,538, and the board is waiting for a bid from Blue Mountain Telecom.
Commstructure also estimated the cost of running a 96-fiber cable from the fire hall to the John Day City Hall at $45,651. The fiber will run north to First Street and North Canyon Boulevard, where CenturyLink has a microwave tower facility, and then east past the People Mover bus facility and back to Highway 26.
Connecting critical infrastructure will improve the coalition’s position when applying for federal grants, Green told the Eagle.
“We’ll be looking at another lateral to connect the hospital and other facilities as well later in 2019,” he said.
The board also heard about plans by Oregon Telephone Corporation to apply to the ReConnect program for funding to run fiber up Highway 395 from Mt. Vernon to several miles north of Long Creek and possibly west to Monument.
If the coalition is awarded both federal grants and completes a fiber line from John Day to Burns, and if Ortelco is awarded ReConnect funding and runs fiber to the northwest part of the county, much of Grant County’s broadband network would be built out, the board noted.
Board chairman Josh Walker characterized the potential achievement as a “hat trick.”
Green also reported on talks he had with Steve Corbato, executive director of the Oregon Fiber Partnership, a collaborative effort by Oregon State University, the state’s major public research facilities and state government.
The partnership has purchased 1,500 miles of fiber from CenturyLink to connect the state’s education and research facilities, which it hopes to activate this summer. The statewide network runs north-south along the coast, Interstate 5 and U.S. Highway 97 and east-west along I-84 and a central route connecting Newport, Bend, Burns and Ontario.
These routes, however, circle a broadband void in Grant and Wheeler counties. The Oregon Fiber Partnership “has the ear of the governor” and will support the coalition’s applications for federal grants, board member Dan Becker told the Eagle.
The partnership has expressed interest in the Grant County coalition’s efforts, as its John Day to Burns line when combined with Ortelco’s John Day to Baker City line would provide the partnership with a Burns to Baker City connection, Becker said.
The partnership “is coordinating their long-range planning to include John Day, specifically providing internet access to our educational facilities,” including the Grant County Educational Service District, local schools and the OSU Extension office, Green told the Eagle.