As Internet access continues to transform from a luxury to a necessity, rural communities, which often lack high-speed Internet, are getting left behind. Beginning on Tuesday, Bend will host the Making Rural Communities Better with Broadband workshop, a two-day event designed to help Oregon’s rural communities address this issue.
The event will bring various stakeholders — including federal and state agencies, consultants and telecom experts — to Central Oregon Community College for panel discussions designed to help Oregon’s remote towns improve their Internet connection. Jill Rees, community development specialist for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s office of Rural Development in Oregon, said the event is full, with 120 people scheduled to attend from rural areas across the state.
“The need for this was greater than we expected,” Rees said.
Chris Tamarin, telecommunications strategist for Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, said Oregon is ahead of the national average for Internet connectivity, but rural areas lag well behind urban centers in the state. According to Tamarin, 34 percent of residents in rural Oregon lack access to high-speed Internet, compared with around 7 percent of the state overall. He added that this gap can keep residents of rural Oregon from accessing health care, education and employment opportunities.
“More and more employers do not take paper,” Tamarin said. “The Internet is becoming that platform.”
Tamarin, who will be speaking at the workshop, attributed this digital gap to a mix of factors, including a lack of awareness of available subsidies and federal programs, high costs and a lack of interest from Internet service providers.
“There are fewer paying customers there,” Tamarin said of rural areas.
The workshop will feature a variety of panel discussions hosted by the Oregon Rural Development Council, a group that comprises a variety of public and private leaders designed to coordinate rural programs and policy. The discussions will cover topics ranging from funding opportunities, to the pros and cons of different broadband technologies, to success stories in rural communities.
One such story occurred in Sherman County in Northern Oregon, where high-speed Internet has historically been difficult to find.
“In 2012, some people were still on dial-up, which is incredible,” said Sherman County Commissioner Mike Smith, who has a background in telecommunications.
Smith spearheaded an effort to bring broadband to the small county, providing residents with access to affordable Internet service by the end of 2012 by building a broadband system leveraging existing 911 infrastructure. He will be speaking at the broadband workshop in Bend to talk about the county’s effort, which won an innovation award from the National Association of Counties.
Although Smith said there is no single solution that works for each rural county, bringing various stakeholders together will help communities find manageable solutions can go a long way.
“No one person has everything to complete a process, but everyone has a piece,” Smith said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7818,