Santiam Canyon (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Thousands of Marion and Polk county residents lacking high-speed internet continue to face barriers to education and their ability to earn a living, and whether a federal bill intended to expand broadband access will help remains unclear.

Oregonians will see at least $100 million in funding from a federal infrastructure bill earmarked for broadband services, but state officials say it’s too early to tell when or how those funds will be distributed.

County officials hope the infrastructure dollars will make life easier for rural area residents in Marion and Polk counties but say the challenges of not having broadband access will persist for the foreseeable future.

Many rural area residents have had to drive to libraries to access the internet, or even do their taxes on their cell phones, said Danielle Gonzalez, economic developer for Marion County. “People don't realize what others are having to do to get access to the internet,” she said.

Gonzalez said teachers in the Santiam Canyon School District have had to give out different homework assignments based on whether students could access them. “This creates (an) immediate difference in the education of our students,” she said.

As a parent of teenagers, she said if her children couldn’t access the internet for their studies, she couldn’t guarantee that they’d be able to go to college. “If we're not doing this now, we're not just harming this generation of students, we're harming the generation of their workforce for the rest of their lives.”

Gonzalez said she knows a young athlete who had to drive out to the middle of a field to be able to do an interview for a major running platform.

Another woman in Detroit who did remote counseling had to move her business because she couldn’t guarantee that she could be there for her patients. Gonzalez also knew a man who had to make the trip to Stayton anytime he needed to upload stock photos for his work.

She said county officials want to protect local farmland and ensure it is economically viable. “The only way to be economically viable is to be super efficient with everything from water use, chemical use, soil moisture, calculations and data. You can't get those things without having access to the internet,” she said.

Eli Heindricks, rural broadband specialist for Marion County Community Services, said some residents even a half mile outside of city limits have told him they don’t have access to reliable internet for the online school work their children are required to do.

Others have had to get creative to access the internet. Heindricks said he visited one farm where he saw internet equipment was set up in the bathroom.

It’s a similar situation in Polk County, where county commissioner Craig Pope said he has heard from residents who needed to use hotspots from their cell phones to educate their children at home. “It's pretty tough to get solid network connections on a hotspot,” he said.

“We heard from a lot of people who said, ‘I'm desperate,’ or those who were told, ‘Look, you can work from home, but you’ve got to have enough of a network to be able to supply your computer,’” he said. “We had hundreds and hundreds of people that could not make that work.”

Gonzalez said the Federal Communications Commission estimates around 7,000 Marion County households are unserved. “That means broadband in a very slow sense,” she said.

She said the actual number is much higher than is reflected in the FCC data. “It's obviously some flawed information, but it's the best information we have as of right now,” she said.

In Polk County, Pope said FCC data incorrectly shows nobody is without service and all residents have minimum access that could allow a household of three to use their computers simultaneously while streaming video.

“I can only say anecdotally that based on the number of surveys we send out and the number we get back, the indicators are that the numbers are significant,” he said.

With any money available through the infrastructure bill, Heindricks said Marion County will likely work with private providers to build out their networks and lower the costs of serving all areas of the county.

“It’s probably going to be a while,” Heindricks said of how long Marion County residents will have to wait for broadband funding from the infrastructure bill. 

The federal government will provide infrastructure dollars to the state, which will decide how to distribute them. “We’re really waiting for the state at this point,” he said.

Gonzalez said there is no guarantee that the county will get any infrastructure funds for broadband services. 

“It's never a guarantee. The only thing you can guarantee is us putting in the work now,” she said. “We can't wait for the federal government and the state government to figure out all of those rules, so we're going to have to start planning now so we will be ready the moment that they're ready for us.”

Nathan Buehler, spokesperson for Business Oregon - the state’s broadband office - said it’s too soon to know how much money for broadband access Marion and Polk counties can expect to receive through the infrastructure bill, or when they will receive funding.

“The bill just passed, so we really don’t know. We only know how much will go into the state at this point, at least $1.6 billion plus the reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund,” Buehler said in an email Nov. 8.

Heindricks said a recurring problem he has seen in Marion County has been that privately operated service providers find it difficult to make money in the timespan they normally do by serving rural areas.

“In rural areas, the cost of gaining access to service is often shouldered on the residents themselves, even if that connection is a few hundred feet from a road to the home,” he said in an email.

Gonzalez said that a couple of years ago, she had to advocate for expanding broadband services in small, rural communities. “I had people tell me that, ‘Well, they move out to those communities, so they don't want it,’” she said. “With Covid and online learning and online workplaces and remote education and all of those things, health care, I don't have to make those arguments anymore. Everybody now sees that this is part of our new utilities that are required.”

She said Marion County will also be able to apply for other broadband funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which Congress passed earlier this year.

Marion and Polk counties have both been waiting on their share of the $120 million Oregon received from that bill. Buehler said the state’s broadband office received final instructions on how to apply for the funds last month and doesn’t expect to get it until Fall 2022.

Pope said the program, which is separate from the infrastructure bill, will not have a grant application process in place until late 2022 and won't start funding projects until 2023 at the earliest.

Meanwhile, he said he expects providers in Polk County will apply for the infrastructure dollars and hopes that funding will support the private sector. “I hope local governments will not be confusing the issues by competing for those funds unnecessarily,” he said in an email.

Pope said he hopes the state will commit to real dollars, dates and locations for distributing the infrastructure funding. “They certainly aren’t including local governments in those decisions,” he said in an email.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to reflect that Business Oregon has not yet received American Rescue Plan Act funding for broadband services. Salem Reporter regrets the error.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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