Government agency considers becoming provider of high-speed service to rural communities

FILE PHOTO - The Clackamas Board of County CommissionersClackamas County is poised to receive proposals from companies to assess whether or not it should become an internet service provider to expand broadband to some of the more rural areas of the county.

Discussion around the issue over the years recently picked up in light of of the COVID-19 pandemic and conversations about ensuring all students in the county have access to high-speed internet so they may get the best education possible while schools remain out of session physically at least until November.

County Administrator Gary Schmidt told the board Tuesday, Aug. 18, that he's proposing three steps in the process to vet the idea of the county becoming an internet service provider (ISP). The first will be to apply for state and federal grants to partner with existing ISPs to provide broadband coverage to rural areas of Clackamas County. The county already has used grants to partner successfully with such entities as SandyNet, which serves the city of Sandy and outlying areas. FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County

The second step will be to seek input from the community, local businesses and school districts to glean feedback as to how to solve the issue of providing high-speed internet to all county residents. According to Schmidt, this is a key point as the county does not want to dictate how to solve the problem, but rather earnestly consider what these communities think they need.

"This would be a very robust public involvement effort," Schmidt said.

The final step is to release the request for proposals to hire a contractor to complete a full business plan for the county to consider in potentially becoming an ISP with an analysis of all the pros and cons.

Commissioner Martha Schrader said that in speaking with school district superintendents, the uncertainty over in-classroom instruction this fall has reinvigorated the conversation around bringing high-speed internet to all corners of Clackamas County.

"For me, this is something I'd really like us to look at and see where the gaps are and really move with them to make sure that those kids get what they need in terms of high-speed access so it can be an equitable experience for their education," Schrader said.

Commissioner Ken Humberston emphatically approved moving forward with the steps Schmidt laid out, saying he'd hoped to see this move take place three years ago when the conversation first began to really gain steam.

Nonetheless, he's excited to see it gaining traction again now as the conversation becomes more serious around ensuring high-speed internet is available in every community within the county.

"I think it's interesting that it took COVID for a lot of people to finally recognize the need for high-speed internet, no matter what it takes," Humberston said. "The model I've used many times in my discussions is the same model for rural electrification and telephone lines that took place in this country in the 1930s. It wouldn't have happened without the government, and I believe that this is going to take a push by the government to make it happen."

Commissioner Paul Savas agreed, saying he believes many of the county's rural communities really do want to see high-speed internet in their area.

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