Broadband comes to Willamina
A new network for the community
Dave Buswell knows a golden opportunity when he hears one. OnlineNW, the primary Internet provider for rural communities in the mid-Willamette Valley area, came to Willamina last year to invite the community to partner with it in building a new high-speed fiber Internet network.
The infrastructure would be combined with a 7%-15% revenue-sharing program that would bring learning opportunities for students and community members and create possibilities for economic prosperity. The only catch? Willamina needed to demonstrate its commitment by getting 40% of area households to preregister for the service before another community did.
Buswell and other volunteers grabbed their clipboards and started knocking on doors. “They wanted to install it on their dime, wanted to bring this innovative design thinking into our community and teach us how to think outside the box,” Buswell says. “It was fairly easy to see it was a special deal.” The community effort was successful, and OnlineNW started installing fiber in January 2018, making Willamina the fourth 10-gigabit city in the nation.
What’s in it for OnlineNW? “It’s a critical long-term investment, and you don’t build that kind of infrastructure in towns that are dying — they have to be not just alive but thriving,” explains Thompson Morrison, the company’s director of business development. “We realized we needed to be a partner and catalyst for building a new future in these communities. Many suffer because their young people leave, even though they don’t want to.”
The company began its efforts three years ago by building its first high-speed network in partnership with the small community of Dayton. The goal of the Innovate Dayton project was to reimagine the town, Morrison says. “In partnership with the school, we wanted to figure out how to create the culture of innovation that will allow us to teach differently and build a future for students in their own communities, where they can connect to global markets but still live down the road from their aunts and uncles.”
Now the ultra-fast infrastructure is a critical piece of Innovate Willamina, a collaboration between local teachers, students, community members and businesses. The initiative creates a new model of hands-on education that fosters innovative thinkers. OnlineNW works closely with Willamina schools and Stanford University’s design school to bring training on ways of problem-solving and teaching.
“This is not about technology, it’s about opportunity,” Morrison says. “Technology is a piece of the puzzle but if you don’t look at this holistically, you could put a fiber network in and people would do nothing with it, or they would just stream Netflix.”
The Innovate Willamina team is putting the training to work with a real-world project — an event focused on the possibility of a Cascadia earthquake that will engage community groups in identifying challenges the community might face and then creating solutions. Students and teachers will work with first responders and other organizations.
The school is continuing to develop teaching methodologies using a learning approach focusing on speed, flexibility and collaboration. It has launched a Career Academy, for example, and is piloting its first after-school team focused on building and using autonomous drones.
“One of the greatest challenges we have as a country is that we are no longer working together,” Morrison says. “Opportunity has been concentrated in certain areas and rural communities have been left behind. We have the opportunity in Oregon to create a model for the rest of the country on how to bring everyone on board and build opportunity for all.”
Learn more at: innovatewillamina.org