Disconnected: Unraveling the challenges of rural high-speed internet service
Across Columbia County, internet access has become a near necessity for children with homework assignments, adults seeking jobs, individuals requiring telemedicine appointments, and others.
In rural counties, internet access hasn't grown as quickly as the need. Columbia County is no exception.
Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as internet speeds of at least 25-megabits per-second download speeds and 3-megabits-per-second upload speed.
A study of broadband access completed by Columbia County early this year recommended the county take on the task of expanding the fiber cable that brings internet access closer to residents. Building that infrastructure, known as a middle-mile network, would cost well over $16 million.
A middle-mile network would expand the necessary infrastructure to more rural areas but leave direct administration of internet service to private businesses.
In rural areas, that infrastructure doesn't exist, and with few potential customers, building networks isn't cost effective for a company.
In a Columbia County broadband feasibility study released in March, some surveyed residents reported that providers told them they could receive internet service — so long as they paid upwards of $10,000 to connect fiber cables down the road.
Nationwide, hundreds of millions of dollars are available in federal grant funding to improve broadband access, particularly in rural communities. That grant funding has traditionally relied on the FCC's broadband access data. But the data is self-reported by internet service providers, and many say it simply isn't accurate.
"There's been a lot of great work, a lot of connectivity that we've been able to deploy, especially across rural America," said Arthur Scott, an associate legislative director with the National Association of Counties, or NACo.
"But at the same time," Scott added, considering the unreliable data the public relies on, "it's very likely that we are not even chipping away at the tip of the iceberg on this thing."
In March, NACo released a smartphone application to test internet speeds, called TestIT. Nearly 100,000 results have been collected by NACo, which is now beginning to analyze the data.
"The app itself is in response to an issue that is growing with bipartisan concern ... over the discrepancies in the data that the FCC is receiving from the industry," Scott said.
Internet service providers report data to the FCC based on entire census blocks. For the FCC's purposes, if one household in a census block has access to broadband, the entire census block has access. The speed data also shows the highest speeds of what providers may offer rather than the speeds customers are actually receiving.
"The problem with that is we're seeing instances where only a few houses on a census block might have access to that service," Scott said. Congressional appropriators use that data to determine need and the funding to meet that need.
"If we're overstating the coverage, we are underfunding the need," Scott said.
As part of the county's broadband assessment, households were surveyed about their internet access and use. The vast majority of respondents purchased internet services. Of those that didn't, half said that was because there was no internet available at their location.
Where internet was available, many respondents said they had limited options and had no choice but to go with companies that provided low speeds at high prices.
For businesses, building out internet service systems in more rural areas is rarely cost effective. Many groups in the county said the lack of widespread broadband access makes their work more difficult.
Columbia Community Mental Health provides telehealth services, allowing patients to receive care through video chats.
"The lack of broadband internet in Columbia County causes a burden on our system to keep up with the high demand of our technological network infrastructure," Hope Wirta, CCMH's communications director, noted in an email.
"With the addition of fiber-optic lines slowly being established in the Scappoose and St Helens area our options and speed of upload and download we hope will improve," Wirta wrote, but that won't address more rural communities like Vernonia, Clatskanie and Rainier.
Scott Duthie, who lives outside Columbia City, said his internet access at home is barely enough to stream a video and below the FCC standard for broadband. At times, he and other family members must take turns using the limited speeds.
Duthie said he pays around $80 a month for his current service with CenturyLink, which is less expensive than his previous service with HughesNet.
Duthie said he wouldn't want the county to become involved in broadband service.
"My personal opinion is I would be interested for an entrepreneur to figure out a way to get better service for people," Duthie said.
Many survey respondents agreed with Duthie. Although not satisfied with their internet service, many Columbia County residents think the county shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars for building out internet service.
"Let's stick to the basics and adequately fund law enforcement first!" one respondent wrote.
Other survey respondents voiced concerns about how broadband access is distributed throughout the county.
"I highly doubt Columbia County would take much interest in the area near Mist," another respondent wrote.
"Had I known internet access and low quality cell phone service would be such an issue where we live I may not have bought here and looked elsewhere," wrote another.
Deborah Simpier, who operates a new internet service provider in Clatskanie, called Althea, said she hadn't heard about the county's feasibil-
ity study prior to its completion.
"We out here in this part of the county don't necessarily hear about the work being done at the county. That speaks to some larger stuff," she said.
"If we're talking about a county-wide solution," Simpier asked, "Are we properly hearing the more rural voices in Columbia County?"
Last month, the St. Helens Public Library used funding to purchase wireless internet hotspots to lend out. Within a day of announcing the purchase, all 10 hotspots had been checked out, and a waiting list has now formed.
The hotspots allow users to access internet anywhere that Sprint's network is available. Some individuals have picked up the hotspots to use on trips, while they're in-between internet service providers, or if they can't afford internet subscriptions or cell phone data. While 5G is the next frontier of internet and will require some new infrastructure, it still relies on the same fiber cables as 4G and previous generations, so no newly added fiber infrastructure would soon be defunct.
Though service is limited to Sprint's coverage area, that service often reaches further into rural areas than where internet service providers function.
The hotspots come down to equity and allowing more people to access the digital world, explained Brenda Herren-Kenaga, a St. Helens librarian.
"As much as we treasure the printed word, we are here for the public," Herren-Kenaga said.
"Thank God for the Public Library or I'd never be able to answer these survey questions!" one respondent wrote in the county's survey. "Internet service is something I wish I could afford but as a retiree on a very limited income, it's simply a luxury I cannot, sadly, afford."
The county does not currently have funding to build out a network and isn't yet ready to apply for grant funding, said Holly Miller, Columbia County's IT director. The report also recommends creating a Columbia County Broadband Consortium, but Miller said that has not been the county's highest priority lately.
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