Christmas came early when it was announced Tuesday that high-speed internet is coming to town — all of them in Grant County.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program is providing a $6 million grant to construct 89 miles of fiber optic line, connecting the cities of Long Creek, Monument, Seneca and Spray to Oregon Telephone Corporation’s high-speed broadband network that already connects the other cities in the county.
This will expand broadband across a 242-square-mile area, with nearly 650 potential new customers — 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, three schools and two fire stations — that can receive broadband access and high-speed internet services, according to information from the USDA.
“Internet access is no longer an amenity; it is an essential component of daily life, as important as it was for rural communities to gain access to electricity a century ago,” said John Huffman, the state director for the USDA.
In a public-private partnership with the intergovernmental Grant County Digital Network Coalition, Ortelco has committed to providing the fastest internet access to as many residents at the lowest price possible.
Expansion of the broadband network will start in early 2020 and will be a progressive project that is expected to last for five years, according to Ortelco General Manager DeeDee Kluser.
“At the end of the year (2020), we should start to see some of our first customers,” Kluser said. “We are not going to wait until the very end of the project and then give access to the broadband. We will hook up people as construction completes and as we go through the towns.”
Coalition board member Josh Walker of Seneca said he is excited to see the project come to fruition. He said he is currently taking online classes from Oregon State University, but the limited connectivity and internet speeds in Seneca would not allow him to stream the content online.
“I know that residents are anxious to see better service come our direction because I get a lot of questions on the progress of broadband because our community struggles a lot with access,” said Walker, the former city manager. “It’s not just a portion of the city. It’s the entire city that struggles.”
The grant funding requires a local match of $1.9 million that will be covered by Ortelco and the Grant County Digital Network Coalition, which includes representatives from John Day, Seneca and Grant County.
The coalition has access to funding, thanks to lobbying by the city of John Day to improve broadband connectivity in the county. In July 2017, before the coalition was created, John Day received a $1.8 million appropriation from the state legislature to modernize Grant County’s digital infrastructure.
“This is a turning point for our community,” John Day City Manager Nick Green said during a grant award ceremony Tuesday. “We are going to go from technology laggards in Eastern Oregon to technology leaders. That’s my mission, and that’s our objective.”
The new broadband infrastructure will provide network speeds ranging from 30 megabits per second to 1 gigabyte per second, which is significantly faster than the 1.5 megabits per second currently provided for many areas around John Day, according to the USDA.
The project had bipartisan support, with representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican, attending the award ceremony in John Day.
Green said Merkley’s efforts to secure funding, as the top Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that funds the USDA, were critical to this success.
“This access will improve the economy, education, and quality of life for folks across hundreds of miles of rural Oregon,” Merkley, who had to be in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, said in a statement. “I congratulate these communities on winning this critical grant, and will continue to partner with local leaders until all of Oregon is connected.”