From remote work to school, the pandemic has forced just about every day-to-day activity online. But what happens when you live in a community with limited or no internet infrastructure? This is still a reality in many communities across Oregon.
With a grant from the federal government, Eugene-based internet service provider Emerald Broadband is aiming to connect thousands of homes in Lane County to the web by the end of the year. Recently, Emerald Broadband Systems Engineer Ben Shapiro told me more about the company’s work.
Alongside CEO Raymond Hardman, Shapiro helped draft the grant application for the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund in early 2020. With $10 million allotted to Business Oregon’s Rural Broadband Capacity Program, providers from throughout the state had the opportunity to apply to fund broadband projects targeting unserved and underserved areas.
The two colleagues had no idea that they were about to be handed the biggest slice of the fund: a total of $1.5 million.
“When we found out our application was selected, we couldn’t believe it,” said Shapiro. “The expansion into west Lane County was supposed to take two years. With this funding, we have to accelerate the project and lay all the fiber-optic cable by Dec. 30 of this year.”
Shapiro finds this work especially rewarding, as much of the areas Emerald Broadband services have been suffering with the extremely low speed and unpredictability of satellite internet.
“It just pales in comparison to wired internet. Recently, we onboarded a couple with fiber-optic who had been using satellite forever. They literally used to fight over who could use the computer because web pages would take so long to download,” said Shapiro.
When the couple used fiber-optic internet for the first time, Shapiro told them to open up YouTube and watch a video. Their response was absolute joy to instantly viewing the video without buffering or lag.
In addition to the simple joy of speedy internet, the project aims to provide rural Oregonians with the ability to work remotely during and beyond the pandemic.
“A lot of Lane County residents used to work in timber. That industry has been declining since the ‘60s,” said Shapiro. “An internet connection can help open up the economy in areas that have historically seen high levels of unemployment.”
When we chatted late this summer, Emerald Broadband had laid cable at just 28 houses. By December, that number will have grown to around 2,500. With just nine employees at the moment, the team is working to grow, with hiring plans for professionals who are able to splice fiber-optic cable.
With the massive influx of customers coming down the pipeline, the team also predicts they will need to hire some people to handle customer support.
When asked about potential plans to lay cable in other rural regions of Oregon, Shapiro said this project is only the beginning: “We’re never going to stop.”
This is part of a regular guest column written by the Technology Association of Oregon in the Portland Business Journal.