Study finds high-speed internet lacking in rural Rogue Valley – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

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Steel rollers with fiber optic cables waiting to be installed at a construction site. Congress has approved billions of dollars in new funding that could help bring high-speed internet to rural America, including remote parts of Jackson and Josephine counties. (image 123rf.com)

Congress earmarked billions to bridge the digital divide

A new study shows that much of rural Jackson and Josephine counties lack reliable high-speed internet, but the results could help Rogue Valley make the case that it deserves federal funding to extend broadband service to remote areas.

When schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, many students in rural areas did not have access to high-speed internet – or the internet at all – to go to school online and do their homework. Adults were struggling to work remotely, and some people couldn’t access telehealth appointments for medical care.

Billions of dollars are now up for grabs after Congress appropriated funds to help bridge the digital divide between rural and urban America.

This unique opportunity prompted the county governments of Jackson and Josephine to commission a study of internet service in the two counties, said Cody Miller, senior project manager for national consulting firm HR Green.

“Jackson and Josephine counties have historically been unserved and underserved outside of municipal areas due to the rural nature of each county’s geography,” Miller said. “The recent COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns have highlighted the needs for ubiquitous broadband. The federal government, in the wake of the pandemic, has issued unprecedented federal funding to stimulate local economies.

Oregon officials will distribute some of the new federal funding for rural internet.

Most densely populated areas in northern Oregon already have high-speed Internet access. Southern Oregon needs to show what projects need to be done to bring high-speed internet to more rural residents, Miller said.

The new study helps Jackson and Josephine counties get a head start in the competition for the money, he said.

County commissioners received a recent briefing on the results of the study.

The study included a survey of 3,345 local residents, testing of actual internet speeds, discussions with internet companies about their expansion plans, and a review of state and federal funding sources.

Residents of cities such as Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass have access to high-speed internet. But lack of service and dissatisfaction are widespread in rural areas, according to the study.

The survey of local residents found that 18% said internet providers were completely unsuccessful in providing service, while 51% said they did the bare minimum. Only 3% said vendors were doing very well, with the rest lukewarm about service.

Nearly a quarter of respondents said they had considered moving due to a lack of adequate internet service where they live, according to the survey.

Showing the importance of internet services for work, school, leisure, healthcare and the economy, 94% of respondents said the internet is as important as essential services such as water and electricity.

HR Green inquired with ISPs about their expansion plans, particularly in the wake of unprecedented federal funding. A variety of different businesses and cooperatives provide services to the area.

Miller said Spectrum received $1 billion in federal funding for nationwide improvements. The company hasn’t said how much it plans to invest in Jackson and Josephine counties, but Miller said he expects that number to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

Spectrum is a set of services including internet offered by the company Charter Communications. The company is a major internet service provider in Rogue Valley.

Charter Communications did not respond to a Mail Tribune question about how much money it has received to expand services in Rogue Valley.

However, in an email response, the company said, “We plan to expand our network to an additional 10,000 homes and small businesses in Jackson and Josephine counties through our own investments, combined with sale prices. auctioned by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. We have not yet announced a schedule for construction in these areas.

The $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a 10-year Federal Communications Commission program designed to bridge the digital divide in the United States by investing billions of dollars in building rural networks in a large band.

The FCC allocates money through a process called a reverse auction. Companies bid for financing by offering to build Internet infrastructure at the lowest cost if they win the money.

The Rural Digital Access Fund is one of several federal government sources aimed at expanding and improving Internet service.

Although internet service providers received low ratings from Rogue Valley residents in the study commissioned by Jackson and Josephine counties, Spectrum said it was ranked as the “Best Internet Service Provider for rural areas” in the US News & World Report 2021-2022 ranking.

In March, Spectrum announced that it had doubled its initial Internet download speed from 100 to 200 megabytes per second for new customers in Medford and Klamath Falls. Current customers will benefit from increased speeds in the coming weeks.

The increase is part of Spectrum’s commitment to offer 200 Mbps start-up speeds in all of the markets it serves in 41 states, the company said.

The FCC considers 100 Mbps Internet service sufficient for modern needs.

The study commissioned by Jackson and Josephine counties found that many rural residents get by with internet speeds of 3 to 28 Mbps.

“You are all lagging behind in broadband speeds. They are well below average,” Miller told county commissioners during the briefing.

Miller said it was expensive to lay fiber optic and copper cables to provide high-speed internet service. Serving densely populated cities is cost effective, but laying miles of cable to serve widely dispersed rural residents is expensive.

Some rural residents make do with DSL – or Digital Subscriber Line – Internet service through existing landline telephone wires. DSL internet is generally slower than cable internet, which can better handle video conferencing, streaming to multiple devices, and large files.

The consulting firm hired by Jackson and Josephine Counties interviewed Internet providers serving the area about their plans for expansion.

Like Spectrum, Hunter Communications and Lumen — formerly known as CenturyLink — won money from the Federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and plan to expand the service, according to the study.

According to the study, smaller providers Rogue Broadband and Greensprings Broadband Cooperative said they currently have no expansion plans.

Both organizations use towers to provide wireless Internet access to rural customers. Speeds are generally slower than with Internet service provided by cables. Both organizations are accepting new clients, according to their websites.

Depending on whether homes have sightlines to towers or not, Greensprings Broadband Cooperative generally covers areas east and south of Ashland, according to the Cooperative’s coverage area map.

Rogue Broadband reaches rural areas from north of Eagle Point to south of Ashland, as well as much of Douglas County, according to its website.

Another option for rural areas is Internet service provided by satellite.

Global company Starlink is rapidly expanding its fleet of satellites to provide the Internet with download speeds of around 100 Mbps. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, uses SpaceX rockets to launch thousands of satellites into orbit.

Rain and trees may interfere with satellite Internet service. The service can be expensive for residents and isn’t the best option for businesses that need reliable high-speed internet, HR Green consultants told county commissioners during the briefing.

However, satellite internet may be the best option for the more remote and hard-to-reach parts of Jackson and Josephine counties, Miller said.

Jackson and Josephine county commissioners plan further discussions about the study and next steps. None showed any interest in county governments building the Internet infrastructure themselves.

Instead, county governments should help facilitate improvements in the region by businesses and organizations that provide the internet, they said.

Armed with the study’s findings, counties can also help fight for fair funding for southern Oregon, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Contact Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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