The city of Hermiston has a broadband issue – but what exactly that issue is and the extent of it is not entirely known.
Sure, there are connectivity issues, but how bad? Yes, there are availability issues, but how widespread? And how are those issues impacting economic growth, educational opportunities, and health care services?
On Monday, the Hermiston City Council gave the approval for staff to continue an assessment of the digital infrastructure needs of city-owned facilities as well as the community. Work has already been going on with involvement from community leaders to figure out where the broadband gaps are and what to do about them.
Nate Rivera, general manager of Hermiston Energy Services, said the initial intent was to look into connectivity issues within city facilities, but the assessment also looked at possibly developing a more comprehensive, equitable solution for broadband access to the city as well as the community at large.
Rivera said there is currently no single broadband policy in place. City facilities are served by multiple providers over varying infrastructures. Issues involving speed, reliability and availability have presented barriers to staff and different departments from collaborating and developing new technology within the city.
The pandemic served to further expose problems. Councilor Maria Durón pointed out that during the shutdown and distance learning, many families had issues with connectivity that hampered the online learning process.
“If we end up going back into shutdown, we will see that same situation again,” she said.
Rivera told the council that in order to invest in a digital infrastructure initiative, the community at large needs to support it. To support it, however, they will have to have a better understanding of the problems that currently exist.
Right now, he said, there is not even a clear idea of how much of Hermiston is underserved. Educated guesses put the number anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of households having less than adequate broadband availability.
“Right now, a vision for the value of a digital infrastructure needs to be developed,” he said. “We need to create more buy-in from local leaders and the community. If we tell them we are going to create a digital infrastructure, we get feedback saying, ‘Well, what does that mean.’ “
Before putting any money in such an endeavor, Rivera said there needs to be a better understanding about the current gaps in broadband availability as well as the benefits to the community of a digital infrastructure initiative.
That means moving to the next phase of work – assessing the economic benefits of investing in a digital infrastructure.
“This will help the city to determine if the community benefits outweigh the costs of investment,” Rivera said. That assessment could take up to eight weeks, he said.
City Manager Byron Smith said it was important for the city to be “methodical and build the community support to make it successful.”
“We’re not ready now to move forward because the community isn’t ready yet,” he said. “A clear path forward has not been established. That’s why we need to go through the next steps.”