A map of available broadband service throughout Oklahoma has just gone from analog to high definition.
On the map, Oklahoma residents can click where they live or work and see how fast internet they can get.
However, the information isn’t just important to Oklahoma residents. It also provides a starting point for federal and state partners who will use the data to develop and execute a plan to upgrade Internet services so they are able to support everyone’s needs.
The $65 billion paid for that upgrade will come through the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which aims to ensure that every American has access to reliable, high-speed internet.
In Oklahoma, officials expect to have about $1.5 billion to improve internet accessibility for state residents, including those already enjoying service, mostly in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa metro areas, that meet or exceed federally acceptable standards .
Any improvement would be applauded by Karen Carter, a virtual school teacher and mother of three in northwestern Oklahoma City whose family struggled with connectivity issues during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
Carter, whose family gets their internet service through a cable service provider, described that experience as “extremely difficult.”
There were times during “internet rush hours” when the service was very, very slow or unusable due to unplanned outages, she said.
The Carters required their children to take care of their school-related work early each day and then only later, after she and her husband were done with what they needed for work, to stay off their internet-connected computers, laptops, and phones.
For students living in more rural areas of Oklahoma, Carter said the need for reliable Internet service is dire, in part because the state’s education system has shifted over the past two decades to using Internet-based materials to educate Oklahoma’s youth. .
While most students were equipped with iPads or laptops to take home for use outside of class when the pandemic hit, many in rural areas struggled to find a reliable internet service to connect their hardware to complete their schoolwork.
“The old educational model where a teacher stood in front of a class and talked and students did their homework at home has disappeared to some extent,” Carter said. “As a parent and as a teacher, access to affordable and reliable broadband services will be huge. It will open doors for children who need it most.”
Map signals ‘Highway to fast broadband’ in the driveway
Oklahoma’s efforts to upgrade Internet services will be led by the Oklahoma Broadband Governing Board and the Oklahoma Broadband Office.
Mike Fina, who heads the board, said the amount of money the state will eventually have to upgrade the service will be calculated using the work the FCC has done with ISPs to document what services they provide. Oklahoma will have the opportunity to verify the accuracy of the data before finalizing the allocation amounts.
Anyone on the card that cannot get Internet service with a download capacity of at least 25 megabytes per second and an upload capacity of 3 megabytes per second is classified as unserved and will be improved.
Fina said he wouldn’t be surprised to see more than half of the state’s households and businesses fall into that non-served category.
To change that, copper wire systems used today in most parts of Oklahoma to transmit Internet data must be replaced with faster fiber optic cables.
Oklahoma will raise money from a variety of sources to improve Internet services, including $382 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, $167 million in a capital projects fund and approximately $1 billion in infrastructure act funding.
It will also raise $800,000 from a Digital Equity Access fund to improve Oklahoma residents’ understanding of digital services and ways they can be accessed, and will partner with entities receiving funding through a ReConnect program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.
ReConnect has already paid for upgrade projects taking place in parts of rural Oklahoma, including projects starting soon thanks to a recent $85.7 million allocation through the state’s USDA development agency led by Director Kenneth Corn.
The Broadband Board and office will consider funding five types of upgrades to boost available Internet services to “gig-squared” capacity, meaning a system can provide download/upload speeds of one gigabyte per second.
In order of preference, they include bringing directly into a home or business using ground cable or overhead cable that follows power lines, delivering wireless, using existing copper cable and digital subscriber lines (limiting upgrade options), using satellite signals or using using digital signals broadcast by television stations.
The direct duties of state leaders are to develop parameters to evaluate, finance and control installation projects, as “a lot of reporting on every dollar we dole out is going to be required,” Fina said.
“By the end of November, we expect to have a better understanding of the current state of data transmission capabilities across the state,” Fina said.
The programme, he said, aims to act as a “highway to superfast broadband”.
Rob Griffin, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who is the tribal broadband coordinator, said it will be critical for the board and office to work with stakeholders across the state to make sure no one is left behind.
“We want to make sure everyone is funded appropriately so that we don’t have areas where funds overlap or worse, other areas where people can’t get that improved service and are stuck paying the bill to get the work done ‘ said Gryphon.
Upgrades are essential to support rural growth
While Carter is confident that switching her Internet from cable to fiber would greatly improve her performance, those upgrades tend to have an even bigger impact on users in rural Oklahoma.
For businesses in particular, improved connection speeds impact their productivity and profitability.
Jo Anne Battles and Mike Dunn, the controller and plant manager at Teal-Jones Lumber near Antlers, said their company has struggled for the past 20 years without reliable Internet service, sometimes leaving it without functioning phones or email.
But earlier this month they said the mill was about to activate a fiber optic line from Antlers that could provide it with much faster and more reliable internet.
The fiber-based service was brought to Antlers through a previous ReConnect project. Teal-Jones then paid to have a line extended to his facility, they said.
While Battles and Dunn said it took several years and considerable expense to get the service to their company, they said the gig-squared internet it will provide means everything.
“We have more automation in the equipment we use today than we had even 15 years ago, so having that high-speed connection is paramount for it to work well,” Dunn said. “All of our machines are (computer) controlled and we need to have suppliers call in from time to time to troubleshoot or upgrade software.
Improved connectivity also allows Teal-Jones to implement a digital, cloud-based inventory system.
The $24.6 million allocated to projects in McCurtain, Le Flore and Pushmataha counties as part of the latest ReConnect funding will provide an additional 4,000 people, 450 farms and more than 80 businesses across the area with greatly improved broadband connectivity, Griffin said.
“As Southeast Oklahoma grows and more people come, it’s important that we have the opportunity to build businesses and an economy to attract even more people there,” Griffin said.
Electric co-ops are also involved in upgrades
In addition to for-profit internet service providers, electricity cooperatives in certain parts of Oklahoma also provide fiber optic internet to customers.
The Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives reports that 10 of its members have established fiber optic subsidiaries that have installed more than 17,500 miles of fiber and serve more than 86,000 customers to date.
One of the largest cooperatives involved in that work is the Oklahoma Electric Cooperative headquartered in Norman and led by CEO Patrick Grace.
The Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives was uniquely positioned to launch a fiber optic subsidiary in 2018 because the areas it serves include parts of Caddo, Cleveland, Grady, McClain, and Pottawatomie counties and people in densely populated areas willing to pay for major city services, Grace said.
Not all co-ops are blessed with the same situations, and some concluded after feasibility studies that they could not provide the service affordably. The ability to tap federal dollars will make a difference to many, Grace predicted.
“The federal dollars provided by the state can bridge the gap between what is achievable and what is not, and get that going,” he said.
Where will Oklahoma be in five years?
State leaders are confident that in five years’ time, high-quality broadband access will be available to more Oklahoma residents.
The upcoming federal dollars will help internet providers across the state deploy systems that previously would not have met their required return on investment or total cost of ownership, they said.
However, those hopes are tempered by concerns about purchasing fiber optic cable and other necessary equipment due to ongoing supply chain issues, plus a lack of qualified workers to install what is needed.
The Choctaw Nation’s Griffin said it and several other entities in the state are working with education professionals on plans to address the latter issue.
“There are a lot of jobs to be found,” Griffin said. “We’ve been given a great opportunity. We’ll just have to work hard.”