VALE – Malheur County will get federal funds to beef up its broadband capability.

The effort is part of a Federal Communications Commission program to invest nearly $68 million over the next 10 years across 10 rural Oregon counties – including Malheur – for broadband improvements.

Now, about 95% of Malheur County residents have access to broadband services. About 1,000 residents do not have access to broadband, said Phil Montano, a spokesman for BroadbandNow, an industry research firm.

“Expanding access to rural broadband in Oregon brings us closer to narrowing the urban/rural digital divide and ushers rural Oregonians into the 21st Century,” said U. S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon.

“I am grateful the FCC recognizes the need to expand rural broadband in Oregon,” he said.

Broadband is important because it permits residents to utilize high-speed internet services that, in turn, help increase educational, economic and medical opportunities in secluded areas.

Broadband is based on the digital transmission of texts, images and sound transferred as “bits” of data. With broadband, the “bits” of data move at a faster rate than telephone or wireless communications.

According to the FCC, 26% of Americans in rural areas lack access to broadband services while only 1.7% of Americans in urban areas lack the same access.

The FCC broadband money is an important economic development tool, said Shawna Peterson, the chair of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board

The board campaigned during the last legislative session for legislation to dedicate state money for more broadband in the county. The board eventually pulled away from its proposed bill, said Peterson.

“We let it (the bill) die because we had been in conversations with several legislators and it looked like something a little bit more comprehensive was afoot,” said Peterson.

Lack of a robust broadband infrastructure in the county hurts the economy, said Peterson.

“We definitely see that as a disadvantage currently in the border region and we were hopeful something like this would come along,” said Peterson.

Peterson said it is the “really rural areas” of Malheur County that still struggle to access broadband services.

Stuart Reitz, the director of the Oregon State University Malheur Experiment Station, served on the border board’s sub-committee on broadband and said the service is a crucial cornerstone to the economy.

“It provides access. Everything is so internet-dependent these days and having a high-speed, reliable internet access makes it easier to do business,” he said.

Reitz said access to broadband services by local agriculturists is also becoming more important. 

“We have so much business done on the internet and we are seeing a movement toward precision agriculture with GPS and internet-enabled technology, so just having the service allows you to do that many more things. It is important and kind of the way the world and the economy is moving,” he said.

Businesses, he said, review broadband infrastructure when contemplating a local investment.

“If a business was looking, a business dependent on broadband or a significant component to its operations, why would it pick Ontario as opposed to some other location that has better service? So, it is important,” said Reitz.

While there is broadband service in the county, Reitz said the local infrastructure still lags behind other areas such as Fruitland.

“They are putting in fiber networks directly into neighborhoods. We don’t have that type of infrastructure in Malheur County,” said Reitz.

Dan Greig, general manager of Farmers Mutual Telephone in Fruitland, said his firm is already investing heavily in broadband in Payette County.

“We are putting fiber in everywhere we can. At least in the Fruitland area we should be 100 percent fiber, in homes and businesses, by the end of the year,” said Greig.

For now, said Greig, Farmer Mutual Telephone is offing fixed wireless service only in Malheur County.

News tip? Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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