Oregon Governor Kate Brown has established an office that will develop broadband opportunities for rural and underserved areas of the state. Brown signed an executive order to create the Oregon Broadband Office on Dec. 14.
Eastern Oregon Telecom CEO Joe Franell is chair of the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council, a statewide committee that backed the creation of the new office.
In her proposed 2019-2021 budget, the governor allotted $5 million to broadband development in rural Oregon for the Broadband Infrastructure Fund. Franell said funding has not been approved for the office yet.
Franell said he doesn’t yet know exactly how the office will be staffed, but said there are supposed to be five employees. He said there is already telecommunications analyst, Chris Tamarin, who has provided support to the advisory council.
He said Brown has expressed specific interest in helping rural Oregon communities get broadband access. Franell said there are still more than 40 schools around the state that don’t have access to high-speed internet.
But he said there are more gaps to bridge in broadband service than just the urban-rural divide.
“I think once we dig in we’ll find out that there’s a digital divide along other lines,” he said. “Socioeconomic and cultural lines.”
He said the second of two comprehensive studies by the advisory council found that Latino communities around the state had seen a reduction of broadband adoption recently.
“Like water or electricity, everyone should have access to broadband,” he said. “I think the office will be quite busy.”
The advisory council was created by the legislature in 2009, Franell said, specifically to provide advice to government officials on broadband utilities and availability.
Brown appointed spokespersons for several areas, including representatives for tribal government, education, economic development organizations, healthcare providers, and urban and rural telecommunications service providers. Franell was appointed to represent the latter. Every two years, the council gives a full report to the legislature.
Franell said the concept for a state broadband office was spearheaded by State Rep. Pam Marsh, from Ashland. Marsh is also on the advisory council.
“She brought it up because there were federal funds we’d been missing out on,” he said. “The council decided it was something we needed to put in our report.”
Earlier this month, when he testified before the House Interim Committee on Economic Development and Trade on behalf of the advisory council, Franell talked about digital inclusion — giving all Oregonians access to high-speed internet in order to bridge educational, medical and safety gaps.
At 84.9 percent Oregon has a higher rate of internet adoption than the national average, 81.4 percent. But Franell said changing broadband standards mean that coverage is less than ideal.
“The definition of broadband is a moving target,” he said in his presentation.