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Rep. Marsh introduces broadband infrastructure bill

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, announced Wednesday she will introduce legislation to leverage an expected $200 million in federal dollars to expand internet services in underserved Oregon communities.

“The internet is now our portal to business opportunities, education, health care, news, religious services, emergency response and so much more,” Marsh said.

Currently filed as LC 236, the bill directs the Oregon Broadband Office to prepare to roll out broadband infrastructure with a framework for state and federal investment, data collection to develop coverage maps and identify gaps, and support for libraries to maximize federal funding for broadband projects, according to a press release.

The bill grants the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council new authority to collaborate with the Broadband Office, provide recommendations for implementing goals, and create grant application review committees.

“Oregon is poised to receive more than $200 million to invest to build services from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act,” according to the release. “[LC 236] will translate a once-in-a-generation capital investment into affordable internet service for rural and marginalized communities across Oregon.”

Ensuring access to the array of resources only available via broadband supports equity, Marsh said in the release.

Prior to the pandemic, a statewide broadband assessment and best practices study by Strategic Networks Group found that the state faced a “rural-urban digital divide” and gaps in service quality because parts of the state lack digital infrastructure readiness, further challenged by geography.

“Areas with low population density and difficult terrain still remain underserved, or even unconnected,” according to the study published Jan. 31, 2020. “Much of Oregon’s geography in urban areas is well-served by terrestrial broadband, however, there are areas that show lesser coverage. In reviewing these areas, lower household income is a factor.”

At the time, about 1.2 million residents lived in areas that were unconnected or underserved, or with older technology providing basic broadband, suggesting about 28% of the state population did not have access to “Future Ready” services, according to the study — manifesting as quality, speed and reliability issues.

A November 2020 report by the advisory council defined broadband as the “lifeblood” of economic development, and telecommunications as a key part of the state’s strategic response to the pandemic amid national direction to avoid contact with others, resulting in a dramatic increase in traffic on carrier networks.

“Companies and industries need it to conduct their business and empower their employees,” the report said. “If robust broadband is not available, companies will migrate to where it is available.”

Marsh said because the pandemic shifted many essential activities such as employment, education and health services to the internet, inadequate or absent broadband services presented a “double disaster” for many Oregonians facing a deadly disease and rapidly changing environment.

The bill requires the Public Utilities Commission to study the state telecommunications assistance program — funded by a residential service surcharge on telephone services — to assess whether the program should apply broadband subsidies to low-income state residents, and submit a report by June 1, 2023.

Federal recovery programs present a “rare opportunity to open doors for all Oregonians,” Marsh said, if timelines associated with the allocation are met.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.