The Oregon Broadband Office is ready for a potential windfall of federal cash to improve high-speed internet access across the state, but lacks long-term planning and reliable data.
Those are some of the conclusions reached by an audit from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office, which released its assessment of the agency recently.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get all Oregonians online,” Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said in a statement. “Access to affordable, high-speed broadband is a necessity. Without it, kids will struggle in school, adults will be disadvantaged in their careers, small businesses cannot reach their customers and communities will fall behind.”
Fagan called on the agency to fully implement the audit’s recommendations and make sure federal money goes to “disadvantaged communities first.”
The Oregon Broadband Office was established in 2019 and operates under Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency. The office is tasked with advocating for and developing broadband policies while managing 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 access work, school and other services. Auditors highlighted the office’s efforts to turn federal stimulus money into $10 million in grants for 28 broadband projects across the state.
But the money wasn’t always sent to the counties most in need.
“A review of the evidence from this program shows money was administered effectively and within the guidelines set by Oregon legislators,” the audit states. “However, due to the emergency timeline, we found grants were not always awarded to areas with the greatest need, but to areas most prepared to receive and make use of the funds.”
Multiple maps included in the audit show that high-speed internet access is greatest in the Willamette Valley but is much more sparse in the state’s rural regions. While the office did award grants to rural counties like Harney, Grant and Klamath, it also gave money to metro-area counties like Washington and Clackamas.
The data the broadband office relies on might not even fully show the depth of Oregon’s internet access disparities. The map divides the state by census tracts, which can lead to some misleading displays.
“If a single home in a census block can get broadband, the entire block is considered served, despite how many other homes without broadband access may exist,” the audit states. “In rural areas, these blocks may stretch miles. The flawed maps present a big problem as the government tries to distribute broadband funding.”
The state estimates it could receive between $400 million and $1 billion in broadband funding from the federal government as a part of the infrastructure bill that passed in 2021. The Secretary of State’s Office said the success of the funding in Oregon will rely on the broadband office’s ability to administer grants properly.
Auditors point to a lack of staffing for many of the issues facing the broadband office. The agency only had one employee for the majority of its life until early 2022, even after the state approved four more positions in July 2021. In September, the state added eight more positions to the office.
With more staffing, the auditors expected the broadband office to spend more time developing policies around filling internet gaps, engaging with the public and other relevant groups, and working with the Federal Communications Commission on improving its broadband map.
The Secretary of State’s Office issued 10 recommendations covering these issues and more, and it faced little resistance from Business Oregon.
In a Jan. 4 letter to the head of the Secretary of State’s audit division, Business Oregon director Sophorn Cheang agreed with all of the recommendations and wrote that her department was already in the process of addressing them.
Correction: A previous version of this story misgendered Business Oregon director Sophorn Cheang. OPB regrets the error.