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LOCAL NEWS: Rural Internet Series: what about funding for rural internet?

Continuing our series on rural internet in Clatsop County, we take a look at federal money allocated for improving rural broadband. Joanne Rideout reports.

Early in the pandemic in Oregon, I spoke with US Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici about the need for better rural internet access. Bonamici represents Oregon’s First District, which includes Clatsop County.

Suzanne Bonamici:

I’ve heard this not only during the pandemic which has highlighted the issue in general but in general I know there’s a big disparity – nearly 35 percent of rural Americans lack access to high speed internet. And especially now the pandemic is sort of highlighting that existing problem. And now especially with the students who are expected to be learning, we need to make sure everyone has reliable access. Because otherwise it creates that inequity.”

Bonamici said there was an infrastructure bill in progress in the House that would address internet access.

Bonamici: “I know in Seaside almost 30 percent of residents don’t have access. And I think about Knappa and Jewell and some of the smaller communities. It’s very concerning. A long term solution is really building out the infrastructure we need and there are a lot of proposals that we’re looking at. More specifically broad infrastructure and some that are specific to rural areas.”

In July, the House of Representatives passed a $1.5 trillion bill to rebuild US infrastructure that included legislation from Bonamici. The Moving Forward Act provides funding for improvements that include $100 billion to improve rural broadband access. The bill went to the Senate in July, but Congress went on August recess and they have not acted on it.

Other internet funding issues also remain unresolved. For instance, Centurylink, one of the main providers of rural internet service in Clatsop County, has taken billions in government grants since 2015, through the FCC Connect America Fund, to improve broadband in rural areas. The company admitted last year that they did not deliver on their promise. Technology news website ARS Technica was one of a number of news outlets that reported in January that Centurylink admitted it “may not have reached the deployment milestone” in 23 states and that it hit the latest deadline in only 10. The company has since blamed the pandemic for its failure to fulfill that commitment and has asked for an extension on its deadline. It’s unclear whether the FCC will require the company to make good on its agreement, or to return the money. Oregon and Washington are listed as states where the company has not met its deadlines.

The Connect America Fund, like the FCC’s other universal-service programs, is paid for by Americans through fees on their phone bills.

I tried to interview someone at Centurylink, but they declined and instead answered my questions in email. In that email, when I asked about their service to rural communities, this was their response:

In rural areas, the need to have broadband equipment close to each customer sometimes means we end up serving a smaller number of homes, which makes it uneconomic to serve some areas.

We believe state and local broadband grants are truly the most economical way to encourage additional network investment where gaps exist today.”

Then there’s the ReConnect Program, funded by the USDA in 2019, with another round of funding this year. In that program, Congress authorized more than $500 million in federal funds for high speed broadband. The program offers federal financing and funding options in areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access to broadband, defined by the law as 10 Mbps (megabits per second) downstream and 1 upstream.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic hit Oregon hard, US Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden sent letters to the USDA, pressing the agency for solutions to administrative hurdles with the program. Merkey and Wyden asserted that the USDA was imposing arbitrary restrictions that prevented rural communities from getting their share of the pie.

In the past year, that program has allocated millions in USDA funding to 36 states so far. When I dug into the details on the USDA website, I found that most were states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Of the handful of blue states awarded funding – that is, New Mexico, Nevada, Illinois, NY, Colorado, and Washington, funding went only to rural counties that voted for Trump. Oregon has received no funding through the program so far.

It’s worth noting that Pacific Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties also voted for Trump in 2016. Only one county in Eastern Washington received federal funding for rural internet through the Reconnect program.

I’m Joanne Rideout in Astoria.