Polk County Courthouse

Polk County and the state are in a dispute over an agreement required to received COVID-19 relief funding. 

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POLK COUNTY — Polk County is making an effort to increase broadband services in rural areas outside of city limits.

In 2018, the Polk County Board of Commissioners applied for a grant to pay for a study that would look at ways to provide broadband internet service countywide.

The county did not receive the grant, and elected to do its own study through economic development, said IT director Dean Anderson.

“The Polk County Board of Commissioners is very aware of the rural divide in broadband services provided by local rural internet service providers (ISP’s),” Anderson said. “However, the Commissioners are not interested in Polk County becoming an internet service provider or competing with existing providers in our county.”

The survey that the county created contained basic questions about internet services provided to rural citizens.

More than 5,000 surveys were sent out to rural property owners outside the city limits of Dallas, West Salem, Monmouth and Independence. These confidential surveys could be completed on the county’s website or sent in through the mail.

Thirty-two percent of property owners sent responses back and of those responses, nearly 87 percent said they wanted better internet service.

As schools shifted from in-person to online in April because of the coronavirus pandemic, issues arose of students being able to access the internet for their classes.

“It’s still an issue for 15 to 20 percent of our students,” said Dallas School District superintendent Andy Bellando,” which reflects the issues the survey revealed.

He said there are many reasons why all students do not have access, such as affordability and available or reliable access.

DSD has created four public internet access sites in Dallas — in the parking lots of three of the schools and in a parking lot of a business in Dallas.

Central School District reported similar numbers for individuals who didn’t have reliable access to the internet, with about 82 to 83 percent of students having access.

“Through our family surveys, we discovered most of our families who needed connectivity help were located within the city limits, with just a few in the outlying area,” said Emily Mentzer, communications coordinator for CSD.

She said that seven percent of CSD’s survey respondents had a confirmed need for service.

“During spring 2020, we used district-WiFi hotspots at four locations throughout the district from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Mentzer said. “They were drive-up or walk-up spots. Henry Hill Education Support Center (district office), Ash Creek Elementary School, Monmouth Elementary School and Central High School. Instructions on how to connect were posted in both Spanish and English.”

The board wants to support the broadband providers locally, and have set up goals to assist in expanding rural broadband services in response to the survey, including improving rural broadband services by partnering with rural providers when possible;  provide information to rural citizens that identify services that are available; and facilitate discussions with rural providers to identify ways they can collectively improve services.

One of the ways the board is doing this is by identifying the level of service for each rural service provider within Polk County, based off the survey, and improve on inaccurate information currently available.

Already the board has held two public meetings with local rural service providers, county, state and federal broadband program managers, and is continuing to share grant information from state and federal programs with local rural service providers and provide grant application support when requested.

According to the survey, it showed that there are 17 internet service providers in rural Polk County that serves 96 percent of those who responded. The service providers include mobile wireless, DSL, cable, fixed wireless and satellite.

Of those who responded, 25 percent of respondents have services they say are below standard internet access, which means speeds less than 5 Megabits per second. Nearly 90 percent have service that is well below the Federal definition of broadband service, which is a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The minimum was changed in 2015 from the 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. Before that change, those standards had been in place since 1996.

According to broadbandnow.com, the average speed of Internet services in Oregon is 42.8 Mbps and 90 percent of Oregons have 100 Mbps or faster service.

The study revealed that one in 10 respondents have no or very slow service that is 2 Mbps or less. One in five pay the same as the national average for services that are 10 times slower.

The average cost for 60+ Mbps with unlimited access in the U.S. is $60 or more per month.

It also concluded that 80 percent of the respondents use internet for personal business, while 40 percent say they use the internet for education.

Additionally, the study looked at issues like cost and how customers rate their service.

  • 20 percent say they pay $100 or more per month for services
  • 75 percent pay $75 or more per month for services.
  • In regards to their service, 40 percent rate their services as being bad, with 60 percent rating their service as OK. Thirty percent rated it as better than OK. 

There was room at the end of the survey to add comments, and 7 percent of participants responded. These comments were divided into four categories: No 5G; No services; No government; and Better cheaper service. Six percent of the 7 percent that responded said they felt strongly that they needed cheaper or better service.

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