Oregon policymakers have worked hard to ensure that all areas of our state, including coastal and rural areas, have access to the latest and best infrastructure. Like roads, bridges and utilities, access to broadband internet is critical for rural communities. As new technologies like next-generation 5G wireless networks are realized, it will be more important than ever to ensure that all Oregonians have access to a reliable high-speed internet connection.
High-speed internet can facilitate many opportunities for rural residents in areas like healthcare and education. Applications make it possible for patients to be monitored remotely by their physicians and consult specialists from different parts of the state or country, saving on the costs and logistical challenges of getting to far-away appointments. For students, having access to the internet at home is critical not only for completing homework assignments, but also for taking advantage of online learning opportunities.
I recently had the chance to participate in a panel discussion at the Oregon Legislature’s Coastal Caucus Economic Summit in Florence. The panel, “Broadband Infrastructure on the Coast – Do Rural Communities Have Access to the Services they Need?” looked to a number of individuals in the technology and legislative arenas to not only provide an overview of the current state of broadband in rural Oregon, but also to look at the needs of rural communities. Most importantly, we discussed the best policy solutions to help meet those needs.
One critical initiative is ensuring accurate broadband mapping by the Federal Communications Commission. Having access to the latest data about which communities have solid access to high-speed internet can help inform state and federal policymakers, as well as Internet Service Providers, who can work together to make decisions about when and where to incentivize and make network investments.
Continuing to encourage and incent broadband providers to bring their upgraded networks to the rural areas of our state is another important step we can take. Across the board, communities have found that an overly burdensome permitting process for network infrastructure can impede the necessary investments for the services they need.
Several rural communities in the Pacific Northwest have had success in creating local Broadband Action Teams. Each BAT is made up of local municipal elected leaders, business leaders, stakeholders and industry representatives who meet regularly to find ways to accurately assess local need, pursue federal grants and attract investment. A team of local broadband champions, working to ensure that their community gets the connectivity that residents rely on.
Encouraging involvement at the community level is an important complement to the work that our state and federal legislators are doing. Our own U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has been a champion for rural broadband deployment. He co-sponsored a bill that, if passed, would direct the FCC to create an Office of Rural Broadband. This organization’s sole focus would be on initiatives that monitor and promote access while removing barriers to rural broadband deployment.
The need for fast, reliable internet is necessary for all communities across Oregon. The benefits of this technology for education, healthcare, employment have become essential to daily life and it’s up to all of us to ensure that no community is left behind.
(Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay has served in the Oregon House of Representatives representing District 9, which spans the southern Oregon Coast, since 2005.)