Leaders in the effort to improve internet access in Grant County have to be nimble on their feet as they vie for competitive grants and design networks that provide the best service for the public.

Last December, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition learned it had not been awarded a $2.9 million Community Connect grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The coalition had hoped to leverage a $1.8 million state appropriation it received in 2017 to begin running optical fiber cable south to Burns. The setback meant the coalition had to look for new grant opportunities.

Federal grants

The board agreed at their Feb. 19 meeting to revise their grant application plans, based on their consultants’ advice about the criteria used to award grant application winners.

The federal ReConnect grant does not favor telecommunication routes through sparsely populated “frontier” areas that lack businesses, schools and health care facilities and requires pre-subscriptions by potential customers.

The Community Connect grant has less restrictive criteria.

The board agreed to swap the two federal grant applications and slightly modify the project areas. The ReConnect grant application will now apply to the area along Highway 395 from the network’s hub in the John Day Fire Hall to Strawberry Lane in Seneca, and the Community Connect application will apply to the area that includes most of Seneca and the route south to Burns.

Board members discussed how to line up enough people to pre-subscribe. Areas where the residents are served by Viasat are off limits to the coalition’s pre-subscription efforts. Many of the large swaths of marked-off Viasat territory are ranches with only a single residence.

Oregon Telephone Corporation, the coalition’s partner in the countywide broadband effort, is also seeking federal funding. The coalition board learned from Ortelco’s Garrin Bott on Jan. 5 that the company planned to apply for a ReConnect grant to help pay for running an optical fiber cable north from Mt. Vernon to Long Creek and possibly west to Monument.

Future funding

Sen. Jeff Merkley, who helped secure $1.15 billion for rural broadband projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, commented in a March 5 press release on the need to ensure that funding reaches the communities it is intended to help.

“Many Oregonians have expressed concerns that some of ReConnect’s designs limit accessibility for more residential areas with fewer medical centers, businesses and educational facilities,” Merkley said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The guidelines used to determine ReConnect grants make the program out of reach for many Americans in rural underserved or unserved areas, he said.

“The need for greater broadband accessibility is for both promoting economic growth and for expanding access to important services like health care and education,” Merkley said in his letter. “Access to high-speed internet, especially for rural communities, is crucial in connecting our constituents to the wealth of information and resources that remains critically underutilized in these areas.”

In 2018, Business Oregon funded seven broadband projects in underserved rural areas through the Rural Broadband Capacity Pilot Program. The department received 25 applications totaling $4.8 million in requests for the $500,000 in available funding.

House Bill 2184, currently in committee, calls for lowering the surcharge on retail telecommunications sales for wireline telephone customers in Oregon from 8.5 percent to 7 percent but also applying the surcharge to wireless communication.

Up to $10 million of the surcharge receipts would go into a new Broadband Fund that would promote broadband projects beginning in 2020. The Grant County Court agreed at its March 27 meeting to send a letter in support of HB 2184.

Senate Bill 904, introduced by Sen. Cliff Bentz at the request of the Grant County Digital Network Coalition, called for appropriating $3 million from the general fund to support broadband infrastructure in Grant County. It has so far failed to move out of committee.

Small steps

Meanwhile, the coalition has been moving forward with small projects. The board approved a $33,333 bid by Blue Mountain Telecom on Feb. 5 to run an optic fiber cable from the John Day Fire Hall to the Grant County Education Service District office.

The cable project was delayed, but crews began running cable April 2. The run is needed to provide internet access to 911 dispatch before they relocate from the city hall to the fire hall.

When the crew is finished, it will head to Seneca to run optical fiber from the school to the city hall building.

On March 26, the board approved a $55,743 bid, also by Blue Mountain Telecom, to install an optic fiber cable from the fire hall to city hall. A large capacity cable will be run north to North Canyon Boulevard and First Street and then a smaller cable will continue to the People Mover facility, back to Highway 26 and then on to city hall.

Richard Hanners is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. He can be contacted at rick@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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