The Grant County Digital Network Coalition is forging ahead with plans to improve internet access in the county despite a recent grant-funding setback.
That was the upbeat message expressed by John Day City Manager Nick Green and the coalition’s board during a Dec. 18 town hall meeting.
The coalition learned in December that it had not been awarded a much-needed $3 million federal Community Connect grant, but federal grant funding to address the digital divide impacting rural communities across the U.S. will increase in 2019.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program will offer $200 million for rural broadband projects, with a maximum of $25 million per project. A 25 percent match is required, and the application deadline is April 29. Additional grant and loan combos and low-interest loan offers add up to another $400 million.
The coalition hopes to leverage the $1.8 million state appropriation it received in 2017 by using it as a match for grants and to pay for engineering and other broadband analysis to improve its chances for a grant award.
Green outlined the coalition’s strengths and opportunities for success at the meeting. The countywide agency is forging relationships with community broadband partners and is well financed, he said. At the same time, federal funding for rural broadband has never been higher, and the state is organizing assets to assist rural communities, he said.
But there were weaknesses and constraints. The coalition is a new organization with no track record of success in a small frontier community with little human capital. On top of that, federal policy continues to be disconnected from the realities on the ground, which includes Grant County’s difficult geography and terrain, he said.
The declining local economy is a double-edged sword, Green said — the need for improved broadband is high, but the market capacity is low. The broadband coalition needs more public support and education, he said.
Grant County has the second highest digital divide index ranking in Oregon, behind Wheeler County. Unlike many counties in Oregon, Grant and Wheeler counties lack a long-haul broadband carrier, Green said.
Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, traveled to John Day to facilitate the town hall meeting. He’s been working on broadband issues for 12 years.
Mitchell bore grim news — while it is true that federal funding for broadband had significantly increased, “help is not on the way,” he said. Most of the funding will go to the most organized agencies because federal officials typically don’t like to see failure, he said.
He expected to see even more federal funding opportunities in the future, but accessing those funds would continue to be a frustrating and difficult process. The Grant County Digital Network Coalition must be willing to “grind it out,” he said — success will depend on local determination.
Mitchell also emphasized his belief in the importance of fiber connectivity, not wireless, which interestingly transitioned to a demonstration of wireless capability by ViaSat. The satellite internet company recently won a Connect America Fund 2 award and will provide 10,000 high-speed broadband connections in Oregon.
To demonstrate ViaSat’s capabilities, two representatives set up a dish and receiver at the John Day Fire Hall and simultaneously streamed the town hall meeting to the internet, downloaded a music video on a big-screen television and provided voice over IP telephone service, in which Green called a John Day dispatcher to say hello.
Green explained that the coalition plans to run fiber to many parts of the county, but some locations are just too remote. In those cases, residents and businesses will need to consider a wireless internet connection such as ViaSat or HughesNet, he said.
While visitors from Long Creek and Bear Valley supported the coalition’s efforts to promote broadband access in Grant County, Bob Pereiro of John Day expressed his concerns about government investing in what he said should be private industry. Pereiro noted that the $1.8 million the coalition received from the legislature was taxpayer money.
Jennifer Barker from Bear Valley responded by pointing out that private industry hasn’t taken steps to improve broadband access. She said she used older satellite internet and CenturyLink at her home with mixed success.
Looking to the future, Mitchell cited the example of rural electrification in the U.S. starting in the 1930s under the New Deal, which he said took 50 years to complete. Fifty years from now, people will have a vague memory of the time “they fibered the U.S.,” he said.