Oregon’s Secretary of State issues an audit of the state’s broadband office ahead of a potential windfall

In this file photo, tech worker Ryne Smith can't do his job in Grant County without access to the reliable, high-speed internet he can get at Seneca's CyberMill Cafe.

In this file photo, tech worker Ryne Smith can’t do his job in Grant County without access to the reliable, high-speed internet he can get at Seneca’s CyberMill Cafe.

Christian Foden-Vencel/OPB

The Oregon Bureau of Broadband is poised for a potential gain of federal cash to improve high-speed internet access across the state, but it lacks long-term planning and reliable data.

Those are some of the conclusions of an audit by the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, which recently released its assessment of the agency.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring all Oregonians online,” Secretary of State Semia Fagan said in a statement. “Access to affordable, high-speed broadband is essential. Without it, children will struggle in school, adults will be denied careers, small businesses will not be able to reach their customers, and communities will be left behind.”

Fagan called on the agency to fully implement audit recommendations and ensure that federal funds go to “underserved communities first.”

The Oregon Office of Broadband was established in 2019 and is operated by Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency. The office is charged with advocating and developing broadband policies while administering and awarding funds for broadband projects, among other duties.

The audit praises the office for the way it handled the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Internet access became critical to accessing work, school and other services. The auditors highlighted the bureau’s efforts to funnel federal stimulus money into $10 million in grants for 28 broadband projects across the state.

But the money was not always sent to the most needy provinces.

“A review of the evidence from this program shows that the funds were managed effectively and within the guidelines set by Oregon state legislators,” the review states. “However, given the emergency timeline, we found that grants were not always awarded to the areas most in need, but to the areas most willing to receive and benefit from the money.”

Multiple maps included in the review show that high-speed Internet access is greater in the Willamette Valley but more scarce in rural areas of the state. While the office made grants to rural counties like Harney, Grant, and Klamath, it also gave money to urban counties like Washington and Clackamas.

The data that the Bureau of Broadband relies on may not fully show the depth of disparities in Internet access in Oregon. The map divides the state by census trails, which can lead to some misleading displays.

The review states, “If one home in a census block can get broadband, the entire block will be considered serviced, despite how many more homes there are without broadband access.” “In rural areas, these blocks can stretch for miles. Flawed maps present a huge problem as the government tries to distribute broadband financing.”

The state estimates it could receive between $400 million and $1 billion in broadband funding from the federal government as part of an infrastructure bill passed in 2021. Oregon’s funding success will depend on the broadband office, the Secretary of State’s office said. Ability to properly manage grants.

Auditors point to staffing shortages in many of the issues facing the broadband bureau. The agency had only one employee for most of its life through early 2022, even after four more positions were approved by the state in July 2021. In September, the state added eight more positions to the office.

With the increase in staff, auditors expected the Broadband Office to spend more time developing policies about closing internet gaps, engaging with the public and other relevant groups, and working with the FCC to improve the broadband map.

The Secretary of State’s office issued 10 recommendations covering these issues and more, and met little resistance from Business Oregon.

In a Jan. 4 letter to the State Department’s chief audit division, Oregon Business Administrator Souvorn Cheng agreed with all of the recommendations and wrote that his department was already in the process of addressing them.

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