Could Internet Access Be Portland’s Next Public Utility?
Remember net neutrality?*
During the presidency of Barack Obama, his vision of a “free and open internet” was codified into federal policy. Just as quickly, it ended—specifically, on December 14, 2017: the day Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission chairman (and former Verizon lawyer) Ajit Pai scrapped that nascent regulatory framework.
For months, the media cooked with speculation. Would greedy internet service providers start strangling start-ups? Stack our search results? Generally play traffic god with the information superhighway? Not much covered: what happened in Portland that same week.
That’s when a small Facebook group, called Municipal Broadband PDX, was formed to get the city to fight back—by building its own fiber optic** infrastructure, leagues faster than the copper coaxial of corporate ISPs like Comcast and Verizon, and likely cheaper for consumers. Whether through competition or by owning the network and setting the rules, the utility could make other vendors also meet standards like net neutrality.
The idea—that government should invest in broadband internet as if it were a basic service like electricity and water—might sound utopian. But if successful, Municipal Broadband PDX, which has since expanded its focus to all of Multnomah County, wouldn’t be the first group to make it work. Already, more than 300 American municipalities own their fiber optic networks.
Multnomah County could, however, be the largest. And two years in, the idea has momentum. Municipal Broadband PDX became a nonprofit in 2018 and won a pledge of $250,000 from the county and five metro-area cities for a feasibility study, expected to be released this winter. That study aims to answer some daunting questions: the cost of the build-out (which could be around $500 million) and how to fund it, how long it would take, and how, exactly, we’d install the miles and miles of fiber.
“The goal is to show the decision makers ... all the opportunities and challenges of this megaproject,” says Municipal Broadband PDX campaign manager Michael Hanna.
Lucky for us, we can learn from our neighbors. Some 20 miles from Portland, Sandy is one of the nation’s earliest adopters of municipal broadband. Spurred by the need to get DSL into city hall, SandyNet was created in 2003, and was originally wireless (much like Portland’s Personal Telco Project, a local network of hotspots that emerged in 2000). But with the rise of bandwidth-gobbling streaming services like Netflix, Sandy upgraded to fiber starting in 2014, financed by a $7.5 million bond.
In 2006, the adjacent Polk County towns of Monmouth and Independence launched a municipal broadband fiber network called MINET. (Fun fact: MINET debuted just four years after Monmouth legalized the sale of alcohol. Priorities.) Despite some bumps and refinancing, that network is humming along today, serving about 81 percent of area residents, and expanding. In early 2019, the high desert town of Maupin (438 residents strong!) completed its own publicly owned fiber network. Closer to home, tech-savvy Hillsboro is hoping for a winter 2020 debut for its own network, HiLight.
“We’re taking fiber network to all the schools,” Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said earlier this year, “even those that are outside of the city limits ... and in unincorporated Washington County.”
Such enthusiasm shows that Municipal Broadband PDX’s argument—that internet access can’t be at the mercy of profit motives at a time when many basic social services require email—is already resonating with some Portland area political leaders.
“Broadband is now considered as essential to life as shelter,” says Marilyn Morton, MINET’s office administrator. “It’s something no area should have to do without.”
According to Hanna, that won’t be guaranteeable as long as ISPs like Comcast can monopolize markets by controlling the infrastructure. But he admits his organization’s vision is ambitious. “It’s a 50-plus year investment.” he says.
Hanna asserts it’d be worth it: “It’s good on every level. We can pool the money. It’s very doable. It just takes political will.”
*Net Neutrality As described by Ryan Singel, a Wired reporter and fellow at Stanford Law Center, net neutrality is the idea that ISPs shouldn’t “get to decide or influence what we do online.” Obama’s net neutrality regulations banned blocking (censoring content), throttling (slowing down content), and paid prioritization (creating a fast lane for consumers who pay more).
**Fiber Optic Fiber operates at close to the speed of light, converting information into a series of pulses then shot through glass strands (optical fibers). Because nothing can get much faster than that, some argue it’s basically future-proof, unlikely to be made obsolete by new technology.