My View: State must blaze trail across digital divide
Oregon has always been home to trailblazers — intrepid individuals willing to find new ways to connect people, products and places.
The paths paved by our ancestors — be they roads or hiking trails — continue to shape how we live today. Now it's our turn to build modern trails for future generations: the digital Oregon Trail.
Gov. Kate Brown's Oregon Broadband Office, created in December 2018, got a few wagons in motion, but we need a whole caravan if Oregon is going to build a top-rate digital network. By 2030, Oregon should aspire to lead the nation in digital connectivity.
Three metrics can mark our progress toward this ambitious target:
• Overall broadband access: Presently more than 10 percent of the state lacks coverage.
• High-speed access in our classrooms — something unavailable at 5 percent of school districts
• Adoption of computer science education requirements. Virginia led the nation by integrating computer science proficiency into its public school curriculum. Oregon should do the same and more.
Topping these metrics are our modern-day continental divide. Our ascent must start with gathering the right resources, namely financial resources. States atop the aforementioned rankings have made Internet connectivity a budgetary priority.
Minnesota, which already ranks seventh among states in overall internet access, plans to spend $100 million on expanding high-speed access in rural areas. In a similar way, Nebraska, which ranks 11th in the availability of high-speed internet, more than doubled its broadband fund from $4 million to $8.05 million.
Oregon's finances may not mirror those of Minnesota and Nebraska, but trying to emulate their spending will see returns for communities in every county. The other side of the divide is well worth it.
Even a caravan stocked with beans and bacon needs the right guides, just ask Lewis and Clark. Oregon requires a cadre of Sacagaweas familiar with the surrounding environment and ready to translate between parties speaking different languages.
Only by recruiting and training tech talent can the state blaze its digital trail. Thankfully, the state can follow a leader it has long emulated — Denmark. In 2017, the digitally driven and technically savvy Danes created the Office of the Tech Ambassador. Oregon should follow the Danes' way.
Tech Ambassador Casper Klynge since has used the title to earn meetings with top tech executives and to hold court in classrooms full of top tech students around the nation. The Danes applied a lesson Oregon learned in a different field. When the state created the Office of Outdoor Recreation, it signaled that leading an industry requires establishing a leader in the industry. We can lead in tech by appointing a leader to show us the way forward.
Our ambassador will need constituents to represent — that's where the education requirement comes in. Oregon presently lags behind the nation in building a pipeline of tech talent. Its performance is low and its opportunities are limited.
The state ranks 26th in fourth-grade performance on math tests and just 854 students completed the AP Computer Science exam in 2016. These measures are not perfect proxies for a tech talent pipeline, but they do signal that Oregon has room for improvement.
The Legislature should require all students to take computer science courses as early as elementary school and then on through high school. Our ultimate goal should be high school graduates with full digital literacy.
Just as no pioneer would set out on the Oregon Trail without knowing how to bake beans, Oregon has a responsibility to prepare its students for the digital path they'll inevitably have to walk down professionally and personally.
Before we even embark on this trail, Salem officials must circle their wagons and unite around a common path forward. The recent legislative session got underway with calls for bipartisanship. Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson raised a clarion voice for attention to both urban and rural issues in Oregon. Republicans seemed less than fully convinced that Democrats understand the needs of rural Oregonians but nonetheless appreciated the gesture.
To get over the continental digital divide, though, talk must be replaced by teamwork. Let's hope this session marks the start of substantial progress toward an aspirational, but imperative goal of making Oregon a leader in digital connectivity.