Just as water and electricity are utilities for everyday life, the internet in the 21st century is necessary for education, work and communication. The growing number of internet providers provides plenty of options.
Yet many rural Lane County residents don’t have a choice at all.
While Eugene has spent the past few years improving high-speed internet for city residents, drawing in local and national internet providers, rural cities are left playing catch up.
Dawn Hendrix owns the Westfir Lodge and has run it for the past three years. When she began, Hendrix used satellite internet for the lodge and her house, which worked, albeit not as well as the fiber optic connection that now serves downtown Eugene.
“If the satellite gets covered in snow, you have to brush it off,” she says. “It’s been interesting, as opposed to living in the city. You have to know coming in it won’t be very good service.”
Hendrix says rural areas face geographical challenges such as hills and trees that often block the signals.
The Westfir Lodge began working with local internet provider Emerald Broadband. Hendrix believes it’s more beneficial to work with local companies because they are able to fix connection problems at a faster rate than national companies.
Emerald Broadband has tried to improve internet access opportunities for smaller Lane County towns and their residents and businesses. They offer internet plans for Eugene, Springfield, Westfir and Oakridge.
Emerald began in 2016 when the company noticed that rural areas in the county were not getting the same level of service as urban areas.
“We have seen little investment from private companies in those areas. Investment tends to gravitate towards urban center,” says Emerald Broadband co-founder Raymond Hardman.
Hardman says in the company’s time of expanding, he has noticed that people in less populated areas, such as Westfir and Oakridge, often pay more than people in Eugene pay — and the city residents get better service. That means some rural residents cannot afford a basic aspect of living.
Oakridge, a town of about 3,000, holds yearly mountain biking festivals, attracting tourists from all over. Hardman says many people he has spoken to at the festivals say they would enjoy moving there, but can’t because they couldn’t be connected for work.
Because of the lack of quality internet service, Hardman says, rural areas have declined and are losing services. People are then forced to drive 30 to 40 minutes to get to everyday businesses.
“Internet is as critical as a natural utility,” he says. “We have to make it available.”
Before Emerald Broadband, CenturyLink was the only provider for residents in these towns, aside from using a satellite. CenturyLink, as the sole option for internet, could charge high prices.
“We are giving them another option and are enabling competition to occur,” Hardman says. “It puts up doorways for another competitor to get in there.”
Right now, Emerald Broadband’s primary target is residential service. As the company expands, it wants to offer residents business-class, fully capable networks at home.
Hardman says that, as a public-benefit company, Emerald Broadband prioritizes effort over profit, helping local organizations such as the Westfir Library.
Looking forward, Emerald Broadband is focusing on the Highway 58 corridor, continuing to look at the areas that get the least amount of focus. Hardman says those areas tend to be more difficult to reach, but it’s worth the challenge.
“Our goal is to make sure that everything is connected,” he says. Emerald Broadband now has more than 47 customers in Westfir, a town of only a few hundred, and is their primary provider.
On the other side of Lane County, Florence, with a population of more than 8,000, has also worked to increase connectivity in the past few years.
Robbie Wright works for Siuslaw Broadband in Florence. He is working on putting fiber in the ground in Florence.
Siuslaw’s goal is to provide internet speeds 40 times faster than the federal standard to every house in Florence.
“The reason we want to do that is to provide people with the flexibility to do what they wanted to do online,” Wright says.
Because they are putting in the fiber as a self-financed pilot project, Wright says, they are experimenting with different methods to balance the speed against cost.
“I want to have and help create a community for my kids to work in if they choose,” he says. “I’ve telecommuted for more than a decade, and you can’t do that without internet.” He says he is grateful that Florence has multiple big names available to provide service to the coastal town.
“We have good competition, and that competition is driving good outcome,” Wright says.
Hardman is optimistic that the situation will improve.
“If we keep the momentum, then it will get better. There is a lot of focus on the need,” he says. “It can’t be the thing people try to get rich off of.”