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Faster Internet Speeds Passing Up Small-town Oregon

PHOTO: Students at the Paisley School say when too many townspeople are online at once, they can't get online to get their homework done. It's a pitfall of rural living that the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council is working to address. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
PHOTO: Students at the Paisley School say when too many townspeople are online at once, they can't get online to get their homework done. It's a pitfall of rural living that the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council is working to address. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
September 30, 2014

LAKEVIEW, Ore. - Oregon's Broadband Advisory Council says 82-percent of adults in the state have Internet access at home, which is well above the national average. But in rural areas, it's a different story.

In Paisley, for instance, the local Internet provider isn't signing up new customers. And for those already connected, the system is overloaded and slow, according to Lake County Commissioner Ken Kestner. He's made it his mission to bring better online access to southern Oregon.

Kestner says the providers don't see the profit in reaching out to small towns, so there's got to be another way.

"We're looking at any options we can FCC grants, USDA grants, whatever," says Kestner. "But still, there's a lot of up-front costs small communities cannot help the private enterprise to get over that hump, to come in and provide that service."

The latest Oregon Broadband Adoption Survey says Internet connection speed and quality "vary significantly across the state," and lack of access is a major factor in central, south central and eastern Oregon, plus the Willamette Valley and the northwest coast. A new report is due November first.

A national coalition, the Rural Broadband Policy Group, wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to treat Internet access like phone service, as a common carrier, what is known as a Title II service.

Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly at Center for Rural Strategies, says it would help ensure all Internet users are treated equally.

"It would uphold net neutrality, first of all, and secondly it would close the 'digital divide,'" she says. "Rural America already feels like it's out of sync with that sort of American idea of equal opportunity; and in the political sector, rural America feels like it's not being heard."

The FCC currently considers Internet access a Title I service, Coe explains, with fewer regulations for Internet providers and no requirement to build in rural places. Of the 19-million Americans who don't have Internet access, more than 14-million are in rural areas.

Kestner says Lake County's challenges include inadequate online resources for schools and a link between the hospital in Lakeview and its outlying clinics. He says growing the local economy requires getting online.

"A little town is attractive to many people who would love to come to the rural environment, if they could continue their work by Internet," he says. "That's one hold-back of drawing that class of people into our community."

In the meantime, he says he'll attend every meeting he can of the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, as an in-person reminder to make rural Oregon a priority.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR