A maturing public-private partnership between Oregon Telephone Corp. and the Grant County Digital Network Coalition may be the answer to acquiring the funding needed to increase broadband access in Grant County.

The coalition’s board recently approved the idea of submitting a joint grant application with Ortelco as a way to strengthen its position after failing to secure a $3 million federal grant last year.

The coalition will submit another application for a $3 million Community Connect grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the grant area has been changed to the Burns to Seneca area, including running fiber throughout the small city.

The coalition had also planned to apply for a USDA ReConnect grant to run fiber from Seneca to John Day, while Ortelco had planned to apply for a ReConnect grant to run fiber from Mt. Vernon to Long Creek and possibly Monument.

The plan is now to join forces for a combined ReConnect grant with the goal of obtaining $8 million, John Day City Manager Nick Green said. If successful, that would be enough to run fiber from Seneca to John Day and from Mt. Vernon as far as Kimberly and Spray.

If the Community Connect application is also successful, the $11 million in total grant funding could be enough to construct two more fiber trunk lines into Grant County in addition to Ortelco’s line from the east — one from the major fiber line in Burns and another from Ortelco’s infrastructure in Central Oregon.

That would not only increase internet capacity and redundancy but also ensure broadband access to every incorporated city in the county.

The coalition’s contribution to the required match would come from the $1.8 million state appropriation the city of John Day received in 2017. The coalition has spent some of that funding on planning and engineering as well as for running fiber from the hub in the John Day Fire Hall to the Grant Education Service District office and from the Seneca School to the Seneca City Hall.

Ortelco would be the primary internet provider for the countywide network — running fiber to homes and businesses and handling service calls and billing.

The coalition would retain ownership of some individual fibers in each cable that could be used by public institutions, including schools and local governments. The Grant Education Service District would be the internet provider for the public side of the network.

The application for the ReConnect grant is due May 31, and the John Day City Council will vote on the application May 14. The city has been acting as the coalition’s fiscal agent until it further establishes itself.

Ortelco has been an independent company since 1914 and began deploying fiber to homes and businesses in 2005. Its past success in obtaining USDA funding along with its engineering and construction personnel makes the joint application stronger. The joint effort will also streamline the permitting process, Green told the city council.

The proposal was presented to the city council and Grant County Court last week. Green told the court it was a 40-year investment — which is the lifespan of the aerial cable.

Communications technology rapidly changes, and fiber provides the most capacity of any commercial technology, Green said. So the county must build up to meet the demands of changes in 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

Negotiations continue between the coalition and Ortelco, including discussions about the legal structure needed to create a public-private partnership between an intergovernmental agency and a for-profit company.

If all grant applications are successful, construction of the expanded network could begin next year and possibly be completed by 2021, Green told the city council.

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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