Grant County, Oregon, Getting Closer to Bridging the Digital Divide

The Grant County Digital Network Coalition is moving forward with plans to expand connectivity and close the digital divide in Grant County, Oregon.

We first reported on the creation of the coalition, which includes Grant County and the cities of John Day and Seneca, last year. Since then, the group has held three Board of Directors meetings and is making progress toward deploying a fiber optic network in Grant County. The coalition plans to build the network in phases, and once completed, it will connect public facilities, homes, and businesses along the fiber route. To offer Internet access to subscribers, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition will partner with local company Oregon Telephone Corporation (Ortelco).

Working Together to Solve Connectivity Woes

The local governments, led by John Day, established the Grant County Digital Network Coalition to improve the region's inadequate Internet access. Out of all Oregon counties, Grant County ranks second highest on the Digital Divide Index, a measurement of broadband access disparities, according to a presentation prepared by John Day City Manager Nick Green. In 2017, Green told the Blue Mountain Eagle that average Internet download speeds in Grant County are around 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and that some people don’t have any access at all to the Internet.

Though the county desperately needs better connectivity, the region’s rugged hills make deploying a broadband network to the small communities difficult. Grant County is also home to Malheur National Forest and other federally owned land, further complicating network construction.

The coalition hopes that closing the digital divide in the county will promote local economic development. A press release pointed out that “Grant County has had the highest unemployment rate in Oregon since 2012 and has experienced more than 30 years of population decline.” It also notes that more than half of the households in the proposed project area are low- to moderate-income. Former State Senator Ted Ferrioli said of the broadband project, “It could turn out to be the key piece to attracting a few new employers and growing local businesses.”

Building the Network, Connecting the County

Earlier this year, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition formally announced their partnership with Ortelco. The current plan is for the consortium of local governments to finance, build, and own the fiber network, while private provider Ortelco will offer Internet access to individual homes and businesses. The coalition will operate as a wholesale provider, and Ortelco will provide retail services.

Construction of the fiber network is expected to proceed in stages. In phase one, the coalition will bring the fiber backbone from the town of John Day to Seneca, connecting homes and businesses along the route and in Seneca with Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP). Fiber drops will likely be completed as the city undertakes water and sewer system projects. The network will also connect a communications tower, outdoor recreation facilities, and public buildings in Seneca, for a total of approximately 100 connections in the first phase. In addition, the coalition is considering extensions to various public facilities in John Day and to a CenturyLink location, for network redundancy. Phases two and three will extend the fiber network further south to Burns and then expand service throughout the county, where possible.

The coalition plans to work with various companies, including Commstructure Consulting, CTC Technology & Energy, and Cohen Law Group, to design and build the fiber network.

Waiting for Federal Grant Results

To finance the fiber network, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition is looking toward state and federal funding. Blue Mountain Eagle reported that John Day has already received $1.8 million from the state of Oregon for deployment. Earlier this year, John Day also applied for a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program, leveraging a portion of the state funding to meet the the grant program’s mandatory 15 percent match. The USDA has not yet announced the winning Community Connect grant awards, but regardless of the results, the coalition will have enough funds from the state to begin construction.