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$6 million USDA grant to speed internet for Wheeler, Grant counties

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KTVZ file

Nearly 90 miles of fiber to be deployed

WASHINGTON (KTVZ) -- U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development State Director John Huffman announced Tuesday that USDA is providing $6 million to expand high-speed broadband infrastructure that will provide e-connectivity for nearly 650 new customers in rural Wheeler and Grant counties.

This is one of many funding announcements nationwide in the first round of USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program investments.

“Internet access is no longer an amenity. It is an essential component of daily life and is as important to rural communities as gaining access to electricity was a century ago,” Huffman said. “Small, remote communities, however, face unique challenges in connecting homes, farms and businesses to this vital resource. We are proud to announce today significant funding to expand high-speed internet access in two frontier-designated Oregon counties.”

Oregon Telephone Corporation (OTC) will use a ReConnect Program grant to deploy 89 miles of fiber to serve some of the most remote areas of the continental United States. The new broadband infrastructure will provide network speeds ranging from 30 megabits per second (Mbps) to 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps). The network will allow Voice-Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video services to be delivered to each customer.

Currently, many areas around the town of John Day lack internet service faster than 1.5 Mbps. In a public-private partnership with John Day in its capacity as the leader of the intergovernmental Grant County Digital Network Coalition, OTC is working to provide the fastest internet access to as many residents at the lowest price possible.

Under the partnership, OTC will build a fiber network and deliver broadband service to residents and businesses while leasing infrastructure to John Day to provide service to public agencies.

The first new fiber route is northwest of John Day. It will connect the towns of Long Creek, Monument and Spray. The second route will start at the northern edge of the town of Seneca and continue to Canyon City, just south of John Day.

Overall, this expanded fiber optic network will extend broadband across a 242-square-mile area that includes 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, three schools and two fire stations. Almost 650 new customers will be able to receive reliable access to high-speed internet services, improving the quality of life for those who live and work in these remote, rural communities.

Background:
In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the rules of the pilot program, called ReConnect, including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.

USDA received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding across all three ReConnect Program funding products: 100 percent loan, 100 percent grant, and loan-grant combinations. USDA is reviewing applications and announcing approved projects on a rolling basis. Additional investments in all three categories will be made in the coming weeks. Funding is contingent upon the recipients meeting the terms of the loan and grant agreements.

These grants, loans and combination funds enable the Federal government to partner with the private sector and rural communities to build modern broadband infrastructure in areas with insufficient internet service. Insufficient service is defined as connection speeds of less than 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. Learn more at www.rd.usda.gov/or.


News release from Sens. Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden:

Merkley, Wyden Announce Major Grant for High-Speed Broadband Infrastructure in Eastern Oregon

The $6 million grant will deploy 89 miles of fiber in rural Grant and Wheeler counties

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden today announced a $6 million grant to deploy high-speed broadband internet infrastructure in Grant and Wheeler counties—two of Oregon’s most rural, and in greatest need of internet connectivity.

The grant is among the first round awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Pilot Program, a $600 million program created in the 2018 federal spending bill. Merkley, the top Democrat on the senate subcommittee that funds USDA, was instrumental in creating and funding the program.

“I fought to increase our nation’s broadband investment after hearing from folks in every corner of Oregon that they still don’t have access to high-speed internet—a fundamental need in today’s connected world,” Merkley said. “This access will improve the economy, education, and quality of life for folks across hundreds of miles of rural Oregon. I congratulate these communities on winning this critical grant, and will continue to partner with local leaders until all of Oregon is connected.”

“This investment linking Oregonians living and working in Grant and Wheeler counties to high-speed broadband internet is a must for these rural communities to keep generating good jobs, ensuring access to quality tele-health, educating students and protecting residents,” Wyden said. “I know firsthand from conversations in both counties at town halls this fall how crucial this connectivity is for these Oregonians and for people throughout our state. I am proud to have helped these communities earn this grant that can—and should be replicated—in every nook and cranny in Oregon. ”

“We would like to thank Senator Merkley and Senator Wyden for their continuing support for Oregon’s rural communities,” said Nick Green, city manager of John Day in Grant County. “Senator Merkley’s efforts to secure funding for USDA to implement this broadband grant program were critical to our success. As a result, we will have high speed internet and a fiber optic network capable of providing future cellular phone service to communities that today lack these basic amenities. These programs will pay dividends for years to come.”

The first new fiber route will be located northwest of John Day, and will connect the towns of Long Creek, Monument and Spray. The second route will start at the northern edge of the town of Seneca and continue to Canyon City, just south of John Day.

The expanded fiber optic network will extend broadband across a 242-square-mile area that includes 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, 3 schools, and 2 fire stations. Nearly 650 new customers will receive reliable access to high-speed internet services, with network speeds ranging from 30 megabits per second to 1 gigabyte per second.


News release from Rep. Greg Walden:

Greg Walden Applauds USDA for Helping Expand Rural Broadband in the Second District 

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Today, Representative Greg Walden (R-Hood River) released a statement applauding the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for awarding $6 million to help expand rural broadband in Grant and Wheeler counties. The money comes from USDA’s ReConnect Pilot program, which Walden helped secure funding for in the last Omnibus bill, and is a result of Walden’s longstanding efforts to expand rural broadband in Oregon. The funding will allow about 650 new customers in the two counties to have access to high-speed broadband.

“At the end of last year, I met with stakeholders out in John Day who have been working to bring this funding to eastern Oregon and I am pleased to see that our efforts paid off,” said Walden. “This funding is critical to help make sure Oregonians can participate in the 21st century economy regardless of where they live, I want to thank Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and the Administration for recognizing the need to expand rural broadband in Oregon. Far too many Oregonians still lack access to reliable broadband internet service and thus access to things like telemedicine, remote learning, next generation emergency services, and video streaming because of insufficient Internet service. This is a step in the right direction, and I will continue to work to help further expand rural broadband in Oregon.”

Walden has played a longstanding role in securing this funding, including meeting with stakeholders in John Day at the end of last year. He also helped secure $650 million in funding for the ReConnect program through the Omnibus bill, without that funding today’s grant would not be possible. 

The new funding will go to Oregon Telephone Corporation (OTC) who will help expand broadband with 89 miles of fiber. The main areas impacted by these funds will be John Day and neighboring cities. The overall impact of the expansion will reach 418 households, 22 businesses, 22 farms, three schools, and two fire stations.

Over the past few years, the Second District of Oregon has seen great progress regarding the expansion of rural broadband. Walden’s 2011 bill, Jumpstarting Opportunity with Broadband Spectrum (JOBS) Act, helped advance wireless broadband, spur billions of dollars in private investment, create thousands of jobs, help bring interoperable broadband communications to public safety officials, and reduce the deficit. This legislation helped open up spectrum for wireless.

Walden continued to spur development with his bill, the RAY BAUMS Act, which reauthorized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the first time in 28 years and will speed deployment of next generation broadband across the country, which is particularly important for rural communities in Oregon.

As the Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and now as Republican Leader, Walden has led multiple hearings on the need to expand rural broadband and improve broadband mapping. He also brought FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to eastern Oregon last year to discuss efforts to improve connectivity in rural communities, including making sure patients in remote areas have access to the best doctors through technology like telehealth.

News / Technology

Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.

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