Oregon’s once-in-a-lifetime broadband opportunity by Representative Pam Marsh
The COVID crisis demonstrated beyond doubt that broadband is vital for our social, economic, emotional and physical health. Individuals and families who lacked access to broadband over the past two years missed out on public health information, remote work opportunities, online learning, health appointments, digital grocery deliveries, live-streamed religious services, and much more.
But there is a tremendous opportunity on the way. The federal government is poised to make once-in-a-generation capital investments to address broadband deployment in rural and urban areas. Oregon will receive more than $250 million for broadband investments from the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act. That’s a lot, but that’s just the start. After the initial distribution, states will compete for billions of more dollars. This is a watershed moment, and we need to be ready.
In the 2022 session I introduced, and the Legislative Assembly passed House Bill 4092, an omnibus broadband bill to prepare Oregon for this work on multiple fronts.
Recognizing that we need guidance for the program, HB 4092 empowered the Oregon Broadband Advisory Committee (OBAC) to advise on the development and implementation of Oregon’s broadband strategy. This includes authority to OBAC to create grant review committees.
HB 4092 also set a strategic planning framework that will guide state investment of federal monies. We need to be ambitious, and that means addressing issues such as funding leverage, system architecture, redundancy, project coordination, and cost-effectiveness. These are in the in-the-weeds issues that will make all the difference in how — or whether — our new broadband system addresses the needs of Oregonians.
The third piece of HB 4092 mandates development of a state map. One of the challenges of broadband development has been simply understanding where the gaps are. While the FCC is promising to provide much better data than it has in the past, we need mapping capacity on the state level to guide our own grant decisions.
Fourth, HB 4092 creates the Connecting Oregon Libraries Fund to enable libraries to capture maximum federal funding for broadband projects. Several years back we established a federal e-rate program for schools, and districts in our most remote corners are now using that framework to obtain huge federal matches. Now libraries need the same mechanism.
Finally, HB 4092 requires the Public Utilities Commission to conduct a study of possible modifications to the Oregon Telecommunication Assistance Program (OTAP), often referred to as our Lifeline program. OTAP provides broadband subsidies to customers of our traditional landline companies. The PUC study will assess whether the fund should be modernized to provide ongoing subsidies to all Oregonians who need assistance. There is no point in building broadband networks if customers can’t afford the service.
Thanks to federal funding, Oregon has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a robust broadband network that will serve residents, businesses and communities in every corner of the state for years to come. I’m doing everything I can to make sure we are ready.
Representative Pam Marsh
District 5 – Southern Jackson County