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PORTLAND-Seven projects to improve telecommunications services in dozens of rural Oregon cities and towns were approved yesterday by the Oregon Economic and Community Development Commission.

The decision means high-speed internet access, modern data switching, fiber-optic rings and basics like voice mail to cities along the north and central coasts, down into the central valley, up into the cascades and over to Eastern Oregon areas around Bend, Prineville and Pendleton. Among the benefits of existing residents and businesses, the enhancements will allow rural economic development departments to actively court business that needs such communications infrastructure.

The projects were the first of two sets that will be recommended by the Connecting Oregon Advisory Board. The board is responsible for suggesting rural areas that should receive enhanced communications services with the $70 million pot set aside by Qwest for such improvements. The money is a result of Senate Bill 622, passed in 1999, which deregulated the profits of US West in exchange for the $70 million rural improvement fund and a $50 million education-related telecom projects.

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