Rural Connections

Maupin’s publicly owned fiber-optic network has made COVID-19 challenges more manageable and could accelerate the exodus of workers from cities. 

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Lynne Ewing, mayor of the 430-resident town of Maupin, saw a lot more faces this year than usual. Located by the Deschutes River in Central Oregon, Maupin is known for summer sports like fishing and whitewater rafting. Nearly one in three residences are vacation homes, though they were mostly full this year as workers fled the cities – something that would not have been possible without the town’s new, publicly owned fiber-optic internet connection. 

The network is the result of a four-year collaboration between the city, telecommunications company LS Networks, Hood River internet provider, QLife, a government agency that promotes fiber-optic network solutions, Google and the Gorge Health Council.

It was not all smooth sailing. The state had to contribute nearly $1 million to the project, double its projected investment, after the initial contribution proved insufficient. Now Maupin has one of the fastest, most financially competitive internet speeds in the state. 

maupinmayor1Maupin Mayor Lynn Ewing

Connecting rural towns to high-speed internet has always been a challenge. With so few residents and the amount of cable needed to reach rural areas, telecommunications companies have seen little need to invest there until recently. But because of COVID-19, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but a vital component of business, health care and education. 

Due to the increasing demand for high-speed internet, coupled with grantmaking from the state, other companies have been making inroads into rural towns. Residents in Detroit, a town of 220 residents in Marion County, will have access to its own fiber-optic network in 2021 through Washington-based Ziply Fiber

Problems of distance and financial viability remain obstacles for private companies seeking to invest with their own money. Publicly owned fiber networks as well as individually owned internet connections have emerged to fill the gap left by large providers.

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As access to broadband becomes a more crucial part of obtaining public services, these solutions could receive more attention as a means of getting internet connections to communities that need them.

The advent of fiber-optic networks, which have emerged as the next generation of internet connection, has made centralized solutions like Maupin’s more viable. 

The push to get a fiber optic network in Maupin came about when LS Networks had plans to build a cellular tower near the city in 2015. Mayor Ewing sought investment. Without funding from public sources, the project would not have gone through. 

“When companies are looking to invest in rural communities, they are typically looking at a 10- to 15-year payback. You want that to be more like three to five years,” says Byron Cantrall, president and CEO of LS Networks. “For projects like this to happen, it needs to be a joint effort.” 

The upside of the city-owned network is already being felt. “One of the fly shops got really tech savvy in a hurry,” says Ewing. “They opened an online store, put up videos of how to fly fish. Now their online sales are outpacing their in-store sales.”

A coalition of investors, including LS Networks and Nike, plan to renovate the high school’s track, giving athletes coming to Oregon to train an option outside of Eugene. The network means athletes from around the world will have unfettered communication, and videos of the trials could be streamed and posted online.

Byron Cantrall, president and CEO of LS Networks. Photo: LS Networks

Knowledge workers from Portland have been able to live in Maupin full-time. One of these workers is Michael Jones, senior director of artificial intelligence research at Salesforce. He was not certain the city’s four-year, high-speed internet project would work out when he bought a vacation home in Maupin. 

Now he has made Maupin his full-time residence. 

“The Portland of today isn’t the Portland of 20 years ago. For a subsection of knowledge workers looking to flee the city, Maupin is now an option. The access to outdoors, safety and the cost of living all make a big difference,” says Jones. “It checks a lot of boxes, and I don’t think too many people know about it yet.” 

Jones has not kept the secret to himself. One of his colleagues has just moved in next door. 

The publicly owned fiber network means multiple providers can offer connections through the same fiber network. While there will never be as many providers in Maupin as there would be in larger cities, access starts at $40 for 100 megabytes per second, and goes up to $70 for one gigabyte speed. The network has a 90% adoption rate among eligible residents. 

Despite the successes in Maupin, the fiber-optic network cannot reach ranches, farms and other residents who live outside city limits. 

“I’ve seen some students from further out drive into town, park their cars next to the library and use the library’s connection to do their homework,” says Jones. 

Additionally, while the mayor was a fierce advocate for getting high-speed internet into his town, many small rural communities do not have champions pushing for internet connections. Grant money will not always be available and return on investment for unincorporated and tribal areas will never be enough for large networks to offer anything other than slow, expensive connections. 

For these challenges, individually owned connections are quickly emerging to fill the service gap. One of these providers is Althea, a telecom startup. Althea provides customers with routers and satellite dishes to connect to the internet autonomously. Due to the onset of COVID-19, Althea has been getting more business than ever. 

“Those of us who work in broadband haven’t been getting any sleep this year,” says Althea CEO and net neutrality activist Deborah Simpier. “COVID has really created a paradigm shift. There’s a lot more frustration with large carriers, and now folks are looking toward different solutions. All of a sudden everybody started listening to us.” 

The Althea model is similar to the one in Maupin, in that residents own independent equipment connecting them to the internet. But instead of being owned by the city, Althea’s equipment is owned by individual residents. The connection can then be sold by the buyer to other residents in the area, similar to a franchise model. Althea collects a transaction fee. 

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Althea’s model has been adopted by rural residents both in Oregon and around the world. While city-owned networks might prove to be the solution for some towns, if public funding went towards subsidizing individual networks, the state could create solutions for reaching the hardest-to-reach residents.

“We need to take a more holistic approach to how we view access to the internet,” says Simpier. “We should view it as everyone having a right to access services like health care, education and public safety, instead of focusing on a particular speed or an individual number. When we think about grants, we have to think about service and sustainability. Will it really provide access a year or two from now?”

Althea has not ignored the increasing prominence of fiber-optic networks. The next step for the company will be the installation of small fiber networks, like the one owned by the city of Maupin, in customers’ homes. 

“If everyone can own solar panels on their roofs, there’s no reason they can’t own their own fiber,” says Simpier.  

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