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Study finds high-speed internet lacking in rural Rogue Valley

Steel rollesr with fiber optic cables await installation on a construction site. Congress has approved billions of dollars in new funding that could help bring high-speed internet to rural parts of America, including remote parts of Jackson and Josephine counties. (123rf.com image)
Congress appropriated billions to close digital divide

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

When schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, many rural students lacked high-speed internet — or any internet at all — to attend school online and do their homework. Adults struggled to work remotely, and some people couldn’t access telehealth appointments for medical care.

Billions of dollars are now up for grabs after Congress allocated funding to help close the digital divide between rural and urban America.

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity prompted the Jackson and Josephine county governments to commission a study on internet service in the two counties, said Cody Miller, senior project manager for national consulting firm HR Green.

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

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

Most of densely populated Northern Oregon already has high-speed internet. Southern Oregon has to show what projects need to be carried out to bring high-speed internet to more rural residents, Miller said.

The new study helps Jackson and Josephine counties get ahead of the pack in the competition for money, he said.

County commissioners got a recent briefing on the study’s findings.

The study included a survey answered by 3,345 local residents, tests of real-world internet speeds, talks with internet businesses 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, the study found.

The survey of local residents found 18% said internet providers are not doing well at all in providing service, while 51% said they are doing the bare minimum. Only 3% said providers are doing very well, with the rest lukewarm about service.

Almost a quarter of respondents said they had considered moving because of a lack of adequate internet service where they live, the survey found.

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

HR Green checked in with internet providers about their expansion plans, especially in the wake of unprecedented federal funding. A variety of different companies and cooperatives provide service to the area.

Miller said Spectrum has received $1 billion in federal funding for improvements nationwide. The company wouldn’t say how much it plans to invest in Jackson and Josephine counties, but Miller said he expects the figure will 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 provider of internet service in the Rogue Valley.

Charter Communications didn’t answer a question from the Mail Tribune about the amount of money it received to expand services in the Rogue Valley.

However, in an email response the company said, “We plan to extend our network to an additional 10,000 homes and small businesses in Jackson and Josephine counties through our own investments, combined with awards from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. We haven’t announced a time frame yet for the buildout in those areas.”

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

The FCC awards money through a process called a reverse auction. Companies bid for funding by offering to build out internet infrastructure for the lowest cost if they win the money.

The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is one of a variety of federal government sources to expand and improve internet service.

Although internet service providers got low marks from Rogue Valley residents in the study commissioned by Jackson and Josephine counties, Spectrum said it’s ranked as the “Best Internet Service Provider for Rural Areas” in U.S. News & World Report 2021-2022 rankings.

In March, Spectrum announced it has doubled the starting download speed for its internet from 100 to 200 megabytes per second for new customers in Medford and Klamath Falls. Current customers will get increased speeds in coming weeks.

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

The FCC considers 100 mbps internet service to be adequate for modern needs.

The study commissioned by Jackson and Josephine counties found many rural residents are scraping by with internet speeds of 3-28 mbps.

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

Miller said it’s expensive to lay fiber optic and copper cables to provide high-speed internet service. Serving densely populated cities is profitable, but laying miles of cable to serve widely scattered rural residents is costly.

Some rural residents are getting by with DSL — or digital subscriber line — internet service through existing landline phone wires. DSL internet is usually slower than cable internet, which can better handle videoconferencing, streaming on multiple devices and large files.

The consulting firm hired by Jackson and Josephine counties asked internet providers serving the area about their expansion plans.

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

Smaller providers Rogue Broadband and the Greensprings Broadband Cooperative said they don’t currently have expansion plans, according to the study.

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

Depending on whether homes have sight-lines to towers, 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, plus much of Douglas County, according to its website.

Another option for rural areas is satellite-provided internet service.

The global company Starlink is rapidly expanding its fleet of satellites to provide internet with download speeds of about 100 mbps. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, is using SpaceX rockets to launch thousands of satellites into orbit.

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

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

Jackson and Josephine county commissioners are planning more discussions about the study and next steps. None showed interest in having the county governments build internet infrastructure themselves.

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

Armed with the study results, the counties can also help fight for fair funding for Southern Oregon, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.