Rush to online
Lack of high-speed internet creates far-reaching problems
When schools across Oregon went virtual last March in the wake of the pandemic, rural areas faced a special problem: Geographic and economic limitations meant many households had limited or no access to the internet. Stories abound of students unable to access online classes. The lack of high-speed internet in rural Oregon has been a serious concern for a long time, but COVID-19 has highlighted the problem.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center report, 37 percent of rural Americans have no broadband internet service at home. Access also varies by demographic, with minority households at a disadvantage.
Coalitions of schools, foundations and organizations have sprung into action to connect students to their classrooms.
The Ford Family Foundation is providing support to several Douglas County school districts so they can provide hotspots and the needed technology for families in remote areas to access distance learning. The Foundation also helped Malheur County bridge the internet divide with a grant that supports access for families in remote areas.
In Crook County, the school district used a pair of school buses as mobile hotspots, and parked them around Prineville and in the tiny towns of Juniper Canyon and Powell Butte. Students brought chairs and their computers, or did their homework in family cars parked near the buses.
In Hornbrook, California, a Siskiyou County town of 250, expensive cellular data is currently the only way to access the internet, creating a barrier for students engaged in online learning. A grant from the Shasta Regional Community Foundation is funding a project to install router equipment that will give most neighborhoods hot spots that will provide free internet access.
In Willamina, a recent collaboration between the town and local provider OnlineNW meant that, when COVID-19 hit, more than 90% of the town had access to super-fast fiberoptic internet service in their home or place of work.
“A year and a half ago, not even half the town had the ability to get hooked up,” says Lincoln Monroe of OnlineNW. Willamina was the second rural project for Online NW, which also offers high-speed service in Dayton.
Some communities have used municipal infrastructure to create affordable new networks. In 2007, for example, Independence partnered with the neighboring city of Monmouth to form their own company, MINET, to build multi-city broadband infrastructure.
How to get help
The federal CARES Act includes funds to help rural communities connect to high-speed internet. Oregon has $10 million available for broadband projects, with priority given to projects that provide broadband access to K-12 students. In addition, the Oregon Legislature recently passed a cell phone tax to fund expanded broadband service in remote parts of the state.