Internet

Grant County hopes free internet will convince tech workers to stick around

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series about efforts by communities in Grant County, like other rural parts of Oregon, to try to attract and retain workers.

Ryne Smith sits in front of a computer at the so-called premiere CyberMill, which opened this winter in Seneca. He’s working on a contract to check new Intel products for problems – a job that requires a faster and more reliable internet connection than at home.

“If I didn’t have this internet, this CyberMill, I couldn’t have done this job,” the 31-year-old said. “I should move out.”

Ryne Smith said he couldn’t do his job in Grant County without the high-speed, reliable internet access he can get at Seneca’s new CyberMill cafe.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Smith is an executing partner for United States T and earns $41,000 a year. So he’s exactly the kind of young worker Grant County wants to make happy.

When the pandemic started in 2020, many people like Smith moved to rural Oregon. They were looking to escape the virus in places with more space and a more affordable way of life.

But now the pandemic is winding down, and city leaders in rural Oregon are looking for ways to convince those workers to stay.

Grant County Director of Economic Development Tory Stinnett said that after decades of factory closures, their population had shrunk and aged. More than half of the residents are 55 or older. And from 2000 to 2021, the population has decreased by 9%, from 7,200 to 6,500 people.

“We’ve had quite a few people moving here for remote work,” she said, citing data on recent home purchases. “Having something like this helps ground people in the community.”

To attract and retain young workers, local towns are helping a non-profit organization build three demonstration CyberMills in Seneca, John Day and Prairie City. If they are successful, the chain plans to expand to Dayville, Monument and Long Creek.

Seneca's new CyberMill opened its doors this winter.  The Grant County Office of Economic Development helped open it so people could get free, reliable, and fast Internet access.

Seneca’s new CyberMill opened its doors this winter. The Grant County Office of Economic Development helped open it so people could get free, reliable, and fast Internet access.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

The first CyberMills are a one-year demonstration project. the US Economic Development Administration donated $268,000, and John Day and Prairie City contributed $50,000 and $10,000. Other contributors included the Oregon Community Foundationprivate donors and quasi-governmental groups such as Grant County Digital.

Backers monitor CyberMills. Customers can use Internet cafes for more than work – they can play games, for example. But that kind of recreational use is unlikely to help attract the subsidies needed to keep CyberMills open.

Users must therefore register with the county and disclose their age, gender, education, and the reason for using the service, such as running a business or attending college.

To keep track of who is using free Internet access and for what, Grant County has a security system.  The hope is that the county can show the state and federal government that free internet cafes are worth having in the long run.

To keep track of who is using free Internet access and for what, Grant County has a security system. The hope is that the county can show the state and federal government that free internet cafes are worth having in the long run.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Didgette McCracken with the Oregon State University Extension Service helped start the nonprofit CyberMill, and she thinks Seneca coffee has been a hit so far. Since opening in November 2021, it has attracted 80 individual users in a town of just 260 people. When the pilot ends, she hopes city, state and federal agencies will see this benefit and want to keep it going.

“There are ways it’s being used that we didn’t even imagine,” McCracken said.

For example, people who need to download software updates for their iPads and laptops visit the cafe for fast and reliable internet. Updating home computers on a slow, glitched internet system can take hours, if at all.

Didgette McCracken, with Oregon State University Extension, says that in four months they secured 80 users as a new CyberMill Cafe.  This is a significant percentage of the city, which has about 260 inhabitants.

Didgette McCracken, with Oregon State University Extension, says that in four months they secured 80 users as a new CyberMill Cafe. This is a significant percentage of the city, which has about 260 inhabitants.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“Someone came here in their new van one day and needed an electronics update,” McCracken said with a laugh.

With today’s technology, it is possible to access the Internet just about anywhere. Many small towns are connected to fiber optic cable, and residents of particularly remote areas can access the Internet via satellite. But it can cost $150 a month in Grant County, where the average income is $27,000. And while satellite service is good for shopping or keeping up with the news, it’s often not fast enough to fully participate in a Zoom meeting, for example.

Buffering breaks can leave a remote boss wondering if an employee is really 100% available.

There are other ways to get connected in Grant County. But each has its drawbacks. For example, several people told OPB that they park outside the Bear Valley Minimart in Seneca to use the store’s free Wi-Fi. It is neither practical nor comfortable, especially in winter.

John Day's adviser Gregg Haberly said he had concerns about the CyberMill project.  “The issue that scares me is that when you push people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts retail businesses in a small town.

John Day’s adviser Gregg Haberly said he had concerns about the CyberMill project. “The issue that scares me is that when you push people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts brick-and-mortar businesses in a small town.”

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Others go online using their cell phones. And that’s fine until you realize huge swaths of the county don’t have cell service. In addition, it is difficult to write a school journal or print a document on a mobile phone.

Still, not everyone likes the idea of ​​a government-backed internet cafe.

City of John Day To advise Gregg Haberley runs a UHaul dealership and a Polaris dealership in town. Ahead of a recent city council meeting, he said the idea was about him:

“The issue that scares me is that when you push people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts retail businesses in a small town,” Haberly said.

In other words, if people have good internet access, they will buy things online rather than locally. Haberly also thinks the government is already too big and too involved in people’s daily lives.

The future home of the CyberMill in Prairie City.

The future home of the CyberMill in Prairie City.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Eastern Oregon Regional EconomistChis Rich said providing fast, reliable internet is key to keeping jobs, but he’s not sure internet cafes are the right way to do it.

“Remote workers typically want and need a private, fixed office,” Rich said.

Cafes cost around $20,000 a year to operate once they are built. It pays for everything from heating to lighting and taxes. Their buildings will also be refreshed, adding a bit of glitz to every town center.

Marcus Bott, who lays fiber optic internet cables in the area for his family business OTC connections, estimates that 60% of Grant County residents already have fast, reliable internet access at home. That compares to about 98% in Portland or Bend.

Grant’s percentage is likely to climb as more fiber optic cables are laid. But connecting to it will be a huge expense for anyone with a long driveway, which is not uncommon in a place like Grant County. Burying just a mile of cable can cost $100,000 or more.

Fiber optic cables laid in Grant County 2022.

Fiber optic cables laid in Grant County 2022.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB