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Talent teams up for Wi-Fi

A year’s worth of free Wi-Fi connections will be coming to Talent, with 83 hot-spot devices provided by a bank, a nonprofit and the city.

Umpqua Bank has donated $20,000 to No One Left Offline, which will work with the city to set up the Wi-Fi hot spots. There will be 30 units for small businesses, nonprofits and community groups in the downtown corridor. The other 53 hot spots will be set up in the transitional housing development being created by Talent Urban Renewal Agency at the Gateway site to house families displaced by the Almeda fire.

“It was definitely a priority for both of us that we … connect as many individuals as possible. The city has really bought into this ... as it is undergoing change,” said Kevin Frazier, founder of NOLO. “It’s a priority to make it a place where everyone can have high-speed internet.”

Umpqua Bank was already looking at ways to provide greater connectivity for the communities it served before the Almeda fire, said Brenden Butler, vice president and community development officer for the bank in Oregon and southwest Washington.

“The bank wondered how it could step up in a rebuilding capacity with services that could best support the community,” said Butler. “I saw (connectivity) as an opportunity from an economic development perspective also. It can be a driver in a community ... not only for life and work.”

Talent City Council voted unanimously to move ahead with the effort at its July 21 meeting. The city is committing to locating sites for the devices and helping with setting them up.

Frazier founded NOLO 18 months ago after realizing how many people lacked reliable access to the internet. The organization has worked extensively to provide access for foster children in Oregon, and has served other communities.

“Without internet access, many social problems only grow,” said Jeremy Ney, NOLO community leader. “Students cannot learn online, parents cannot work remotely and families across the country cannot access digital government services.

Talent’s project is the largest for a single community and the largest in terms of spending of any undertaken by the group so far, said Frazier. NOLO has worked with Jackson County Housing Authority to get hot spots in public housing.

“We have predominantly been working with foundations and other nonprofits,” said Frazier, “The real connection with Umpqua came about with their support not only in Southern Oregon but with helping close the digital divide.”

Location of hot spots at the Gateway site will serve families who experienced trauma from the Almeda fire.

“There is so much uncertainty going on right now, so the last thing to think about is how you are going to connect to the internet. It’s one less thing that you have to think about,” said Frazier.

Hector Flores, Talent community outreach officer, will work with NOLO on placement of the devices, said Jon Legarza, interim city manager.

“Our goal is to get them in place this fall,” said Legarza. Construction work at the Gateway site should be completed in early October, when trailers will be moved onto the site.

“We are open and eager to work with any community. We think that every community should take Talent’s vision for a downtown corridor and Wi-Fi area that allows people to have access to the internet,” said Frazier.

Umpqua’s funding will provide the 1-by-2-by-5-inch devices and one-year subscriptions to internet services.

“We are definitely focused on talking about ongoing support, if there is a need there,” said Butler. “Our hope is that this could act as a catalyst to encourage other foundations and companies to support this work and continue to support the connectivity.”

Umpqua and NOLO previously approached the city of Phoenix with a similar offer. But the city council turned down the project, citing concerns about potentially funding the system in the future and the sentiment that businesses could undertake the effort.

Umpqua Bank lost a branch building that burned in Phoenix during the Almeda fire. The company expects to announce a new location where it will rebuild a branch in the community within the next 90 days, said Butler.

More information about NOLO can be found at nooneleftoffline.org.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.