As part one of this blog described, broadband access and affordability in Oregon is essential for children, families, and individuals. Recognizing the importance of addressing and improving broadband availability, many of Oregon’s legislators are working to implement and further policy changes this legislative session.
Over the past few years, several legislative steps at the state-level have taken place: .
- 2018: HB 4023 established the Connecting Oregon Schools Fund to increase broadband access in schools, particularly in BIPOC and tribal communities.
- 2019: HB 2173 expanded which educational organizations could receive Connecting Schools funding and also established the Broadband Advisory Council.
- 2020 Special Session:
- SB 1603 established an Oregon Broadband fund to receive up to $5 million a year until 2030 for the development and expansion of broadband services in underserved areas.
Federal CARES Act funds were allocated to support broadband expansion.
Despite progress, the digital divide remains
Despite all of this work, more than one-quarter (26%) of Oregon residents remain underserved in terms of broadband access. In their 2020 report, the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council emphasized the increased urgency of expanding broadband due to the COVID pandemic, including recommendations to increase financial and infrastructure resources to expand broadband in underserved areas.The Oregon Broadband Office estimates that the 78 current broadband expansion projects in the state will cost $501 million to fund, and that $345 million will be needed from grant funding. There are also 32 communities that would benefit from planning and technical assistance to apply for funding. Federal funding does not come directly to Oregon without applications, and the communities most in need are often the ones facing the most significant barriers in applying.
Looking forward to solutions
The Governor’s Recommended Budget for 2021-23 proposes $118 million in broadband investment statewide, focusing on underserved communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including BIPOC and tribal communities. This funding would connect an additional 50 communities statewide to broadband and ensure that every school district has access. Governor Brown describes a three-pronged approach to use this funding to increase access:
- Business Oregon would operate a program allowing communities and other entities to apply for grants to fund broadband infrastructure projects;
- The Oregon Department of Education would expand broadband to the 40-60 school districts without access in the next two years; and
- The Oregon Housing and Community Services would operate a subsidy program for individuals and families in urban areas that have access to broadband but face financial barriers.
As it stands, none of this funding is guaranteed; it will depend on decisions made through the Ways and Means process this session. But inclusion of these recommendations signals the importance of this issue and is a step towards securing funding to improve broadband access and affordability across Oregon. These investments into broadband, as well as those funded by the CARES Act, offer state broadband investments that can be furthered by the expected broadband federal funding in the American Jobs Act COVID relief bill.
Legislative and Internet Service Provider (ISP) investments
There are several bills currently under consideration this session that are promising in terms of increasing broadband access and affordability.
- SB 615 establishes a fund to help low-income families pay for broadband and recently passed out of the Senate Committee on Labor and Business. While the amount or source of funding isn’t specified in the bill, it can be determined in Ways and Means. If passed, it will begin to address financial barriers to broadband access that many families face.
- HB 2411 sets up a process for telecommunications providers to utilize other infrastructure construction projects to build broadband infrastructure, making it easier to begin building it in underserved areas.
- HB 2654, another infrastructure bill, allows electrical wires that are already permitted to be on property to also be used for broadband by electric utility cooperatives (common ISPs in rural communities).
- HB 3256 does two things 1) it sets up research into the feasibility of expanding the Oregon Telephone Assistance Program (OTAP) to also subsidize broadband, and 2) establishes a fund to provide broadband services to libraries. Increasing broadband access in libraries is especially important as Oregon begins to re-open. For many, libraries are the only source of internet access during non-COVID times. Many libraries have expanded wifi access to their parking lots to allow families to use them even while the pandemic has kept buildings closed.
Outside the legislative process, the barriers to broadband access have been recognized by many Internet Service Providers who are already working on initiatives. For instance, Lane Fi, an ISP from Lane County, is aiming to improve broadband availability in rural areas of the county through fiber optic cables. While fiber cables present some challenges to build in a way that will not make them vulnerable to natural disasters such as wildfires, they tend to be a simpler and cheaper option than wireless internet in rural areas.
Express your support for affordable and quality broadband access
By ensuring that all schools, libraries, families, and individuals are connected, we set a course for a future where all children in Oregon have access to the resources they need to succeed in school and beyond. As many of these bills move out of their original committees, it is important to keep the public pressure on—legislators will be significantly more likely to support a bill when it is clear that their constituents care about it. Advocate via phone calls and emails to your specific representatives, both in the House and Senate, on behalf of affordable and quality broadband access to express your support. These bills, programs, and investments collectively build towards the same goal—to provide access to high-quality, affordable broadband for all Oregonians.