For many kids in Forest Grove and other more rural parts of western Washington County, the ability to do homework stops when the library or Starbucks close, said Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax.
That's because they don't have access to high-speed internet at home, and they have to use publicly available internet for homework in an increasingly digital education system.
Oregon ranks 23rd in the country for broadband connectivity, according to Matt Sayre, vice president of the Technology Association of Oregon, with an estimated 400,000 Oregonians without adequate internet access.
Elected officials at every level of government agree that increasing broadband connectivity is crucial for equity and economic development in rural areas.
But how, exactly, rural broadband internet will be implemented, and whether or not cities such as Forest Grove will bring in the next generation of high-speed digital service, 5G, is uncertain.
Local elected officials, state legislators and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici met with digital service providers at a lunch at the Ridgewalker Event Center in Forest Grove Thursday, Jan. 24, to discuss how to bridge what they called the "digital divide."
The lunch, organized by the trade group Pacific Technology Alliance, was also an opportunity for elected officials and industry representatives to work toward resolving local disputes that have prevented the installation of 5G infrastructure, which is considered a potential boon for tech-reliant commercial development.
"This is a matter of community survival," said state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, at the lunch.
Marsh has been leading an effort to expand broadband connectivity at the state legislature. She was joined at the lunch by Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, and Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro — the Forest Grove area's local legislators.
"Surveys indicate that young people come back and settle in communities where technology is available," Marsh said, adding that rural forestry and agriculture industries, as well as telehealth services, are increasingly in need of broadband internet.
Expansion of broadband internet has been slow in rural areas because service providers don't believe there's a high enough opportunity for returns on investment, officials explained.
Some cities, including Eugene and Hillsboro, are implementing plans to effectively make high-speed internet a public utility. Those projects are rarely feasible for smaller communities, however, which is why Marsh and other legislators are hoping to pass a bill that would expand funding for rural broadband projects.
The Rural Telecommunication Investment Act would make about $5 million per year available to help small broadband providers set up infrastructure in rural areas. The bill would expand an existing surcharge that currently applies only to landline users, thereby including cellphone users too.
The impact on individual cellphone users would be rather modest; Marsh estimates it would increase phone bills by about 30 cents per month.
At the lunch Thursday, officials also discussed an ongoing legal fight between cities across the country and the Federal Communication Commission that has prevented wireless carriers such as Verizon from installing 5G infrastructure in places such as Forest Grove.
"Many cities are great to work with, many cities welcome the deployment of infrastructure; many cities are not quite as forgiving, and they make permitting extremely difficult," said Kathy Putt, government affairs manager at Crown Castle, a company that builds broadband infrastructure.
At issue is whether the FCC can limit how much cities charge wireless carriers to build pizza box-sized antennas, or "small cells," to light poles and other city infrastructure.
In September 2018, the FCC issued a ruling that capped the amount cities could charge at $500 for installation and $229 for annual maintenance conducted by the city. The rule relies on a federal law that bans local governments from prohibiting carriers from offering service.
Truax said he was at a League of Oregon Cities board meeting when the FCC rule was issued.
"We immediately decided to file suit," said Truax, who is a League of Oregon Cities board member, in an interview. "It's a home-rule issue."
Local leaders like Truax argue that cities should be able to decide how much to charge companies that want to come in and build.
After Forest Grove passed a resolution establishing fees for small cell installation a couple hundred dollars higher than the FCC limit, the city received letters from Verizon and T-Mobile stating that the fees were unreasonable.
Truax said the charges were based on how much the small cells would cost to maintain on public property.
Truax said he also feared that the carriers would "cherry-pick," only installing 5G infrastructure where they believed there would be a sufficient return on investment, broadening digital inequities.
"If we're going to tout broadband and 5G, we better not leave anyone behind," Truax said. "We want to make sure we have a say in how it's done."
The FCC rule will go before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Feb. 10.
Bonamici addressed the dispute at the lunch, saying, "We need to resolve that. I know there's legislation to overturn the FCC ruling. I've heard from many municipalities about their concerns it's a loss of revenue, it's a loss of local control. We have to work together. Access to broadband, particularly rural broadband is a refreshingly bipartisan issue."
Bonamici is a cosponsor of the Lift America Act, which was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives last spring and would provide $40 billion for broadband infrastructure projects nationally.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.