Wyden Touts $24 Million Grant to Boost Rural Internet Access

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Sen. Ron Wyden meets with members of Zayo Group and Umatilla officials on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, to discuss providing faster, more reliable internet service to Umatila and other communities during a visit to Umatilla High School. (Photos by Yasser Marte/Hermiston Herald)

The COVID pandemic highlighted the importance of having reliable, high-speed internet access and many educators saw a gap between the haves and the have nots.

“The difference between a student with access to reliable internet service and those without it during the pandemic was huge,” said Umatilla School Superintendent Heidi Sipe Tuesday morning during a visit to Umatilla High School by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

Wyden was in town to talk about a $24 million federal grant to improve connectivity in rural Oregon. Much of the money will be spent digging holes and laying fiber underground.

The grant comes from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and will go to Zayo, a network infrastructure provider. Zayo will provide middle-mile infrastructure needed to enable internet connectivity. Communities benefiting from the grant are Umatilla, Fort Rock, La Pine, Lakeview, Ione, Mayville, Mitchell, Paisley and Prineville.

Heidi Sipe, Superintendent of Umatilla School District, points out the importance of quality broadband internet for students and how it can shape their education on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, at Umatilla High School.

The $24 million grant comes on top of a $689 million to expand access to broadband internet to rural and underserved communities – the largest single broadband grant in Oregon’s history.

At Tuesday’s event in Umatilla, Wyden said providing middle-mile infrastructure to rural communities such as Umatilla will benefit students, small businesses and tele-health professionals.

“Rural communities and their success rely on dependable broadband access,” Wyden said. “Rural communities without good connectivity are like a farm without water. They can’t survive.”

Umatilla High School student Avery Gutierrez told Wyden about the difficulty she and other students have without reliable internet connectivity. She said she often stays late at school to do homework because the internet connection at home is too often slow.

“When I’m at school, I have access to amazing equipment and a stable internet,” she said. “When I’m at home, I’m one of the more fortunate students that has access to the internet. But even with broadband access, it is still unstable and is often down. My mom is currently working on her master’s degree and often has to come to the school do her work.”

Umatilla Chamber of Commerce President Yesenia Leon-Tejeda told Wyden about the challenges she faces a realtor. Simply uploading photos of a house for sale onto the real estate website Zillow can take hours. The quality and speed of the internet is also something that comes up with prospective home buyers.

“They always ask how good the internet connection is,” she said.

Joe Frannel, president of Blue Mountain Networks, discusses the nuts and bolts of building better internet access for Umatilla on Tuesday, June 27, 2023, at Umatilla High School.

Joe Franell, president of Blue Mountain Networks in Hermiston (formerly Eastern Oregon Telecom), said everyone he talks to – students, farmers, business owners – all have one thing in common.

“They all need fast, reliable and affordable internet access,” Franell said. He said it is important to provide internet equality, meaning everyone – regardless of income or where they live – has access to reliable, fast internet. He likened it to the U.S. Postal Service standardizing the cost of sending a letter. A stamp costs the same for everyone regardless of where they live.

“When we settle for a standard that is not the same for everyone, we are shortchanging families,” he said.

Joel Daly, senior vice president of government affairs and product strategy, said the $24 million project will be complete in about two years.

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