Sherman County is turning to tiny, shiny, sun-powered trailers to fill gaps in high-speed internet coverage in Oregon’s windswept wheat country.
The coronavirus brought a new sense of urgency to the long-standing issue of bringing rural communities online.
As distance learning, remote work and telemedicine took root this spring, some Sherman County residents were still relying on satellite internet or even dial-up, seeing download speeds of 1 or 2 megabits per second (Mbps). That’s far below the federal minimum standard of 25 Mbps and hardly capable of supporting a Zoom meeting.
Though Sherman County has worked for years to upgrade its internet system, the pandemic laid bare an issue plaguing rural communities everywhere.
“There’s places that just can’t get internet like everybody else,” said Joe Dabulskis, the county judge.
The challenge facing Sherman County and areas like it is both geographic and topographic.
Sherman County relies on a fixed terrestrial internet system, in which hilltop towers broadcast internet signal to the surrounding area.
In this north-central part of the state, people often build homes between hills. Trees can grow there and the hills help stave off high winds.
However, those same hills block internet signals. Fixed terrestrial internet is a line-of-sight technology.
“If you can stand outside your house and see the tower, you can get internet from it,” said Ryan LeBlanc, owner of Sage Technologies in Bend, “but if you can’t see it, then you can’t get internet.”
Connecting homes down in the hollers isn’t as simple as building more towers. Those require power, which is expensive and harder to come by in far-flung places.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” said Carrie Pipinich, senior project manager with the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District. She’s worked on issues of rural connectivity for the better part of a decade. “This is really local work.”
To the southeast of Sherman County, Wheeler County is Oregon’s least populous. It ran into the same issue a few years ago when it was trying to bring residents up to speed. Sage Technologies worked with a Redmond-based solar company to devise a solution that would fit the terrain without the need for costly power from utility companies.
What they came up with is a solar-powered trailer that can be easily moved to wherever the need is greatest. The sun hits a solar panel that charges batteries housed inside the trailer. Those batteries power an antenna mounted to the trailer’s exterior. The antenna catches signal from fixed towers and rebroadcasts it to homes in the newly established line of sight.
The trailers bring the strength and stability of fixed towers to homes that can’t see them. A handful of trailers has kept remote Wheeler County homes connected to the internet for years.
The Oregon Legislative Emergency Board in June set aside $20 million of federal CARES Act money to fund rural broadband improvements. Sherman County applied for and received enough money to buy four solar-powered trailers. The county positioned the trailers to target students, teachers and health care workers who couldn’t access tower signals.
“This is life-altering to be hooked up to high-speed internet,” Judge Dabulskis said.
Sherman County has had 23 confirmed coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, as of Friday. Its schools have been open four days a week with a half-day of distance learning on Fridays. Dabulskis knows that could change quickly, especially given the rapid uptick in cases statewide.
“We’re always prepared that if we get a spike in cases and we need to shut down, we’re doing everything we can to be ready for that,” he said atop a hill striped with wheat stubble on a sunny Veterans Day near Moro.
Nearby, LeBlanc climbed the side of one of Sherman County’s new broadband trailers to attach the antenna.
“When I can flip the switch, so to say, and see the internet actually working at these people’s homes,” LeBlanc said, “it’s one of the most rewarding things that I think I’ve done in my career.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to properly denote the unit for download speed. OPB regrets the error.