WESTON — While hiking or camping in Eastern Oregon, the lack of internet access can be a welcome respite from the bustle of every day.
But for those who live here, it’s a real problem — one local leaders are working to fix.
Internet service in Weston was recently the subject of a City Council discussion when Mayor Jennifer Spurgeon asked Council members for approval — which was granted — to join Connect Americans Now, a coalition of private and public entities advocating for an FCC rules change that would enable internet providers to offer broadband at a wider range.
The coalition, launched in January by Microsoft in partnership with software trade organization The App Association and the National Rural Education Association, wants the federal government to free up frequencies once used by broadcast television for unlicensed use in rural areas, according to reporting from tech publication VentureBeat.
“What we are asking the FCC to do is ensure that at least three vacant TV channels stay available for unlicensed use in rural areas,” coalition spokesman Zachary Cikanek said.
The internet provided wouldn’t quite match the fiber optic connections offered in bigger cities, Cikanek said, but it would be a major boost for rural areas across the country, many of which have yet to emerge from the copper-cable, dial-up era.
In joining Connect Americans Now, Weston follows its neighbors Athena, Adams and Helix, all of which signed up earlier this year.
Weston is entering the digital age a little faster than Cikanek’s description of rural internet, the mayor said, but she’s open to any possible solutions.
Rural internet access is a recurring theme in Spurgeon’s political career. In addition to serving as mayor of Weston, she’s on the League of Oregon Cities’ legislative committee for telecom and broadband issues and the rule-making committee for a House bill, 4023, which includes several pro-rural broadband measures.
Spurgeon and her husband own a local business, she said, and often rely on the internet to operate it. In Weston, however, slow connections cause serious delays. And on the recreational side, she said, streaming a movie or TV show becomes impossible in town during peak hours.
Weston has two internet providers, CenturyLink, which uses phone lines to provide internet service, and Wtechlink, a wireless service Spurgeon said is sometimes thwarted by the city’s low-slung geography.
This is just the most recent in a series of efforts to bring better broadband to the area, Spurgeon said. A grant application with Business Oregon for a pilot program that would have brought fiber-optic cables into the northeast portion of Umatilla County was rejected in March, she said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers some loans and grants for rural broadband expansion, she said, which she plans to explore.
“Being online is the equivalent of electrification of rural areas,” Spurgeon said. “If you want to consider this as a piece of infrastructure, then something has to give. There has to be an opportunity for rural communities and rural citizens to participate, just like any other piece of infrastructure.”
Television frequencies, according to Cikanek, travel farther and are less vulnerable to disruption than the higher frequencies currently used for broadband internet. He compared the difference to that between FM and AM radio.
“It just so happens that at just under 700 megahertz is this sort of beachfront property of spectrum, which was previously occupied by television providers,” Cikanek said.
Television’s UHF band channels — channels 14-51 — traditionally used frequencies between 470 and 890 megahertz.