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Clatskanie schools awarded $22K but other Columbia County projects lose out

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - The Clatskanie School District will partner with the Clatskanie Co-Op to expand broadband service for students.The state of Oregon announced on Tuesday, Aug. 11, grant awards totaling $10 million for broadband improvements, but for the most part, Columbia County missed out.

Both Blue Mountain Networks and the Vernonia School District applied for grants that would have given Vernonia residents a marked improvement in internet access, but those applications weren't in the 20% that were accepted.

Earlier this year, the Oregon legislative emergency board allocated $10 million of CARES Act funding for projects to increase broadband capacity.

The funding was allocated for broadband as residents around the state have moved to working from home and attending school entirely online. Business Oregon, the state's economic development arm, received almost $50 million in funding requests, or five times the amount available through CARES Act funding.

The state awarded grants to 28 projects in 24 of Oregon's 36 counties.

One local organization that did receive funding was the Clatskanie School District. The CSD received a $22,000 grant to expand the services of an existing internet service provider to provide access for students. The district is partnering with Clatskanie Co-Op, which uses the Althea system co-founded by a Clatskanie resident. The system uses routers in homes and businesses to relay internet connections further away from the underground cable that provides internet connection.

Only 0.2% of the $10 million in grant funds will go to projects in Columbia County, while the county accounts for 1.25% of the state population.

Other applicants would have served other parts of Columbia County but were denied funding, including:

  • Clatskanie Co-Op, which applied for a $30,100 grant separate from its work with the school district; and the city of Rainier, which applied for $28,000.

  • The Northwest Regional Education Service District and Options Counseling Services of Oregon, both of which applied that would have served Columbia County and other counties.

  • Whiz to Coho, which applied for two grants: one to improve internet speed on Sauvie Island and one to install more than four miles of higher-capacity fiber optic line near Hillsboro, which it said would improve service as far away as Sauvie Island and Vernonia.

    Joseph Franell, president of Blue Mountain Networks, said on Monday, Aug. 10, that while its grant proposal did not receive funding, the company was still looking at ways to fund a similar project in Vernonia.

    Franell is chair of the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, and represents rural interests on the council. Through the council, Franell is connected with county leaders in Tillamook, Clatsop and Columbia counties. Conversations about improving rural broadband access had begun well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but gained urgency as schools and workplaces closed down.

    Rural areas across the country have often been left behind as internet access improves. While some who choose a rural lifestyle don't feel the need for reliable internet, others struggle to work, learn, find social services, or connect with loved ones. In many areas where there is internet through one provider, a lack of options for consumers means the sole provider can offer inadequate services at high prices.

    At a town hall organized for a 2018 Columbia County broadband study, Vernonia residents said their internet service was weak and unreliable. Some residents expressed a desire to work from home, but weak internet access made that impossible.

    "According to the Vernonia School Superintendent, approximately 85% of Vernonia's K-12 students experience challenges with distance learning," Columbia County Commissioner Margaret Magruder wrote in a letter of support for the BMN application. "This confirms the Broadband Feasibility Study that Columbia County conducted in 2018, which showed that Vernonia was the most significantly underserved area of the county.

    That same study recommended the county build a middle-mile broadband network. Compared to the $17 million estimated cost of that network, the $174,000 requested for the Vernonia project and the $70,000 requested by the Vernonia School District seemed like a modest start.

    BMN and its subsidiaries currently operate in eastern Oregon and the mid-Columbia Region, but are interested in expanding to Vernonia.

    Vernonia School District Superintendent Aaron Miller did not immediately return a request for comment on the outcome.

    One dilemma applicants faced was that projects funded through the program had to be completed by the end of 2020. For building out infrastructure, less than four months was too short of a time period for many would-be applicants.

    If the BMN grant had been funded, the company would have built a cable modem network to provide internet speeds up to 600 Mbps (Megabits per second) upload and 100 Mbps download. According to the Federal Communications Commission, an internet connection qualifies as broadband if is at least 25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download.

    Franell said the cable modem network would have been the fastest to build in the area, but other options are on the table if BMN finds funding not limited by the short time limit.

    Download speeds enable video and music streaming, web browsing and many other online activities. But as video conferencing becomes an integral part of working from home, attending school remotely and accessing healthcare virtually, upload speeds are particularly important, Franell noted.

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