A $6 Million Grant Promises to Close the Digital Divide in Oregon’s Frontier Region

CTC congratulates public officials in Grant and Wheeler counties, and the Oregon Telephone Company (OTC), on winning a $6 million federal grant to expand high-speed connectivity to hundreds of new customers in this frontier region of eastern Oregon. This grant was one of the funding announcements made December 3 in the first round of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

The counties sit in one of the most isolated regions of the continental United States. One of the area’s school districts—the Long Creek School District—is the size of Rhode Island and includes five mountain passes. Teacher Denise Porter says most of her students lack internet access at home; not even sluggish DSL service can reach them.

That’s about to change.

CTC was proud to have helped develop the public-private approach and grant strategies, and prepare the necessary grant application materials, on behalf of the City of John Day, Oregon. (The City served as the lead agent for the intergovernmental Grant County Digital Network Coalition, which is partnering with OTC to expand service in the two counties.)

“This is a turning point in our community. We have forged a partnership that we think will bring prosperity throughout the region,” said Nicholas Green, the John Day city manager, on a conference call. “We’re going to switch from talking about what we don’t have—to what we are going to do with it.”

OTC will use the grant to deploy 89 miles of fiber to serve the region. The new infrastructure will provide network speeds ranging from 30 Mbps to 1 Gbps. Currently, many parts of this area lack service faster than 1.5 Mbps—meaning that students and their families lack broadband; businesses have been unable to get adequate service; and aging microwave links have failed to provide adequate connections for public safety communications in an area where forest fires are a constant threat.

The first new fiber route will connect the towns of Long Creek, Monument, and Spray—all to the northwest of John Day. The second route will start at the northern edge of the town of Seneca and continue to Canyon City, just south of John Day. Overall, this expanded fiber optic network will extend broadband availability across a 242-square-mile area that includes 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, three schools, and two fire stations.

As USDA Rural Development State Director John Huffman pointed out in a statement: “Internet access is no longer an amenity. It is an essential component of daily life and is as important to rural communities as gaining access to electricity was a century ago. Small, remote communities, however, face unique challenges in connecting homes, farms and businesses to this vital resource.”

Round 2 of the USDA ReConnect program is expected to be announced soon. For general guidance on preparing an application, take a look at the guidance our Funding Strategies Team put together for Round 1 and stay tuned for updates as soon as information about Round 2 is announced.

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 by CTC Technology & Energy