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Significant money will pour into Oregon to expand broadband service in underserved areas, but don’t expect instant connections. Business Oregon, the state agency in charge, doesn’t have a plan on how to spend the money.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains $100 million for broadband expansion in Oregon. The American Rescue Plan adopted earlier this year provided $120 million for broadband expansion. Both federal bills require Oregon to apply for their formula fund allocations. The deadline for applying for the $100 million is December 27.

Nathan Buehler, a spokesman for Business Oregon, told Lynne Terry of that after applications have been submitted, the state’s broadband advisory committee will meet and request proposals. Buehler said the agency’s broadband staff is small and cannot expand without legislative budget authority. That’s also true for investing in actual broadband expansion projects. The legislature gave advance authority to Business Oregon to apply for federal formula funds if they became available.

The legislature already carved out $11.6 million from the CARES Act, the first pandemic relief program, to pay for internet access to residents and businesses in underserved areas. From that carve-out, $1.6 million went to 26 projects enabling students to participate in online classes. For example, Terry noted, $314,000 paid for internet service for 150 students in Independence and Monmouth who lacked access at home. Money also was used to create hotspots at a museum, city library and popular park.

The remaining $10 million went to 28 projects to support online medical consultations, remote work and distance learning. Cities, counties, tribes, school districts and private internet service companies were beneficiaries, Terry reported.

The broadband office of Business Oregon, which Governor Brown created by executive order in 2018 with a single employee, published a statewide broadband assessment and developed a strategic plan last year. “The plan,” Terry summarized, “says the broadband office is committed to bridging the digital divide, promoting digital literacy, investing in unserved and underserved areas and forging cooperative broadband solutions involving public and private partnerships.”

The assessment indicates 95 percent of Oregonians have internet access with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second. “That’s enough for two people to run five devices or allow streaming of one high-definition movie,” Terry says. Some 139,000 Oregonians have no or slow access, according to the assessment.

Business Oregon says the cost to ensure all Oregonians are connected could range up to $1.32 billion. That conflicts with the White House fact sheet on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that says $100 million should provide internet service to 137,000 Oregonians. That’s the intersection where the strategic plan must be translated into specific projects.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, hailed the federal broadband investments as a “game changer”, but not an instant success story. “In five years if we use this money strategically, we can have high-quality services for residences and businesses in every corner of the state,” Marsh told Terry. However, she cautioned against expecting any projects to launch right away. 

In five years if we use this money strategically, we can have high-quality services for residences and businesses in every corner of the state.

Mallorie Roberts, with the Association of Oregon Counties, called the pending federal funds an “historic investment”, adding a cautionary note, “We have to watch how the money flows”. Expanded high-speed broadband access has been called an equalizer that gives rural areas a way to compete for business expansion and remote workers who can choose where they live. 

While expectations are high, competition for funding will be intense. “People see the headlines and think it’s easy,” Buehler explained to Terry. “There’s a good reason that there’s a process. This is a lot of money.  (They) don’t just hand out duffle bags full of cash.”

The legislature will reconvene for a short session early next year at which lawmakers will decide how on staffing the broadband office, developing a process to spend $220 million and overseeing how the money is spent and the results it produces. “We now have a whole lot more money,” Marsh says. “We want to support the office in having the capacity and direction to spend it.”