Oregon’s Digital Divide
Like electricity, high-speed internet is necessary for participation in our globalized society and economy. Though it is a vital component of our modern infrastructure, most rural Oregonians lack internet capable of reaching 100 Mbps speeds.
This digital divide puts rural communities at risk of being left behind. Urban centers should not be the only places with a quality internet connection. All Oregonians should have the ability to live and work across the state without limitation.
Closing the digital divide in Oregon is not just as simple as delivering internet service to homes in rural areas. The problem is much more complex than that. The difficulty in providing internet access in a rural community starts with getting traffic in and out of the area through middle mile networks.
What is Middle Mile?
While “last-mile” internet delivers traffic to the individual end user, middle mile networks connect ISPs to each other and to the internet at large. Middle mile networks are required to support last mile availability.
Most middle mile connections fall along major interstates and highways throughout the United States. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many rural areas have been largely undeveloped when it comes to middle mile networks.
Experts in Oregon have identified more than 35 communities without middle mile connections1. Designing and constructing networks for these rural areas has unique challenges which require public-private partnerships to overcome. Through thoughtful and strategic investment, these partnerships can improve middle mile access in Oregon, ultimately closing the gap in our digital divide.
Rural Middle Mile Challenges
Oregon has unique challenges in both weather and terrain which can turn middle mile fiber builds into long and expensive projects. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the cost to build in a rural community can be three times more per square mile2.
The state’s mountains, coastline, and forests can make planning and engineering difficult, and unsafe conditions such as wind, rain, or snow can cause delays in construction.
Timelines are often extended by permitting processes required for Oregon’s 15 million acres of BLM Land and National Forests which comprise 25% of all land in the state3. Other delays from easement issues or archaeological and biological studies can also increase the time and cost. In some instances, the build can require expensive changes to the design and engineering plans.
Because of these challenges and high investment, many companies are hesitant to take on rural middle mile projects. Though a necessary addition to Oregon’s digital infrastructure, they are often cost-prohibitive making them a weak business case for many companies.
It is imperative, therefore, that Oregon should not rely solely on the private sector to solve these challenges and implement a robust middle mile strategy in rural areas.
Public sector investment and engagement with private companies will be necessary to overcome these obstacles and support rural internet access in Oregon.
Middle Mile Investment in Oregon
The recently passed Infrastructure Bill allocated $1 billion to improving middle mile networks. To better these connections in Oregon, the state should adopt a middle mile strategy led by a collaboration between Oregon’s private firms and local officials. These partnerships will offset the financial burden limiting middle mile development in rural areas by private companies.
Engagement with the state can also improve permitting by encouraging expediency where possible. The state can also advocate and engage with federal agencies to streamline the permitting process on federal BLM and National Forest land.
State and local governments must partner with companies who are committed to the local communities, dedicated to designing and building for the future, and who will support and maintain the networks they build.
Funds should be directed at companies who will future proof Oregon’s infrastructure. With the rapid development of technology, middle mile networks must be built to handle the speeds we need now and in the future.