LEBANON — More than 5,600 rural residents of Linn and Polk counties will soon have access to high-speed Internet, thanks to $13.5 million being invested by PEAK Internet.
Funds will be divided between a $6.6 million grant and a $6.6 million loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and part of $550 million Congress has allocated to the ReConnect Program.
“This will allow PEAK Internet to install fiber optic lines and expand their network in rural areas,” explained Erin McDuff, a spokeswoman for the USDA in Portland. “There are many rural areas of the country that don’t have high-speed Internet or sufficient access.”
McDuff said the lack of population density in rural areas makes it difficult for companies to financially support services.
“It’s not feasible for private companies to provide infrastructure in some areas, so we are providing funding to bridge that gap,” McDuff said.
PEAK Internet has been upgrading its system in recent years and most recently added fiber optic lines in the Lebanon area.
Nine years ago, Tomonori Sekiguchi and his wife, Cindy, wanted to make a lifestyle change and moved from Eugene to a home on five acres near Rock Hill School south of Lebanon.
While they have been happy with the quality of life part of their decision — flocks of wild turkeys and other wildlife roam the area — a lack of quality high-speed Internet service proved quite frustrating, since Sekiguchi works internationally.
With airline travel difficult, he has relied on videoconferencing daily for more than a year.
“It has been especially important this past year due to COVID-19,” Sekiguchi said. “I work with manufacturing companies and we need to be able to hold meetings as well as work with vendors, distributors and marketers.”
He has been extremely frustrated with his home’s Internet service for years.
There were times his service would collapse as many as 20 times per day. The family switched to satellite service, but Sekiguchi worried about issues if trees in the area blocked reception.
But recently, thanks to PEAK’s new fiber optic lines, working from home became much easier, Sekiguchi said.
“He was always talking about 5G phone service,” Cindy Sekiguchi said of her husband. “But since we installed the new system a few days before Christmas he never talks about that anymore.”
She added that uploaded and downloading videos could take hours before, now it takes only minutes.
“We almost gave up on high-speed Internet,” Tomonori Sekiguchi said. “But now, I can’t believe my eyes. We waited nine years.”
The Sekeguchis' son, Nathan, 23, lives with them and is studying nursing. The new Internet service is invaluable to his studies.
“The volume of videos he has to download and the amount of correspondence with his instructors is amazing,” Tomonori said. “The service has been impeccable.”
PEAK Internet is owned by Casco Communications (Consumers Power) and will use the funding to add fiber optics to an almost 11-square-mile area in Linn and Polk counties.
PEAK Internet President & CEO Rick Petersen said fiber optics allows the company to provide high-speed services without worrying about mountains, trees and other natural barriers in the mid-valley.
The project will allow PEAK to provide gigabit internet speeds to rural customers along with streaming video and traditional telephone service.
“Our population density in some areas is seven homes per mile,” Petersen said. “That’s doesn’t provide enough customers for a stand-alone business case. But with the USDA’s assistance, this takes the project to 50 cents on the dollar investment and that creates a compelling business case to build out services in these rural areas.”
Petersen said the fact that half of the money is a loan proves PEAK is serious about serving rural residents.
Petersen said the funds will be used in a small area in Southern Polk County near the Kings Valley area. Another key area will be in the north canyon area that was hard hit by wildfires in September.
Petersen said high speed broadband also allows Consumers Power to better manage its system and to see where outages are even before the crews arrive.
“When wildfires happen, it’s important that electric and other utilities can be shut down quickly,” Petersen said. “Timing is everything.”
Petersen said PEAK hopes to start construction this summer. The company has up to five years to complete the project based on the grant and loan agreement.
“We started the application process in February 2020 and we didn’t even know what the pandemic was yet,” Petersen said. “The pandemic has made this project even more important, getting high-speed Internet access to children and families trying to attend classes online.”
Petersen said people are telecommuting for their jobs, using telemedicine instead of going to medical clinics and employing distance learning from kindergarten to college levels.
Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.