While still moving at dial-up speed, a recent announcement from Lane Council of Governments offers a hopeful sign that the promise of broadband internet for rural parts of Lane County is getting closer.
LCOG—which describes itself as a one-stop destination for services to local governments and agencies in the Lane County region and beyond — recently announced that it has selected a vendor to create a regional broadband strategy with the goal of increasing access to Internet services throughout the county.
Back in June, LCOG’s Selection Committee sent out an RFP for a vendor who could develop the overall strategy. The committee — comprised of partners from the City of Eugene, Eugene Water & Electric Board, Lane County, the City of Springfield, Springfield Utility Board, the University of Oregon, and LCOG—received six proposals. After reviewing several submissions, the committee chose CobbFendley and Associates of Olympia, Washington to create the strategy and funding response for the Lane County region. In September, LCOG issued an Intent to Award to CobbFendley. LCOG staff have begun contract negotiations with the vendor and hope to reach an agreement by the end of October.
LCOG officials said that CobbFendley will develop a plan to improve broadband internet service, maximize the region’s competitiveness, and expand into underserved and unserved areas in Lane County. Focus will then turn to broader, longer-term support structures contributing to the ability of rural and urban centers to increase speeds and equitable access.
In anticipation of this project, LCOG staff have begun recruiting for the Broadband Strategy Advisory Committee, staffed by area partners and stakeholders, which will oversee the work of CobbFendley throughout the course of the project.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the lack of reliable internet access to residents throughout Lane County when they needed it most, including for remote online school and working from home,” said Michael Wisth, LCOG Government Services Division director. “This project is a chance for Oregon to continue to be a leader on the broadband front.”
Wisth said that the project’s initial focus will be on connecting near-term project concepts and other actionable steps toward providing enhanced and reliable broadband internet service to Lane County areas lacking appropriate coverage.
“Our goal is for CobbFendley to develop an initial plan by Spring of 2023, and then a complete strategy by the end of 2023,” said Wisth.
The recent passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provided a historic investment in infrastructure, including $65 billion for broadband deployment and affordability.
Last year, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden urged the Federal Communications Commission to make rural broadband one of its top priorities.
“I believe it is time for our country to state unequivocally that it is an American priority to make broadband in 2021 what electricity became 80 years ago: an essential service on which every household could count, in every nook and cranny of rural America,” he said.
According to the Center for Rural Affairs, an advocacy group for rural America, there are more than 23 million Americans who lack access to broadband internet service. The organization cites the critical need for both funding and strategic planning to help close this gap.