Six Oregon Municipalities Partner to Complete a Fiber Feasibility Study

GRESHAM, OREGON — A new study on the feasibility of creating a publicly owned high-speed internet network to serve every resident and business in Multnomah County, Oregon, finds a digital divide even as COVID-19 has pushed vast amounts of education, healthcare and work online.
 
The report, commissioned by Multnomah County and the cities of Fairview, Gresham, Portland, Troutdale and Wood Village, found that even in a highly connected county, 13 percent of lower-income residents have no internet access at all. Low-income residents who do have broadband also pay the same rate as high-income earners and only 4 in 10 people overall said they could afford the current commercial rates.
 
The 281-page report found strong interest in closing the digital divide and for a government-owned network — and details significant risks related to market factors and consumer price sensitivity. Proposed solutions vary widely from building a full network to supplementing existing infrastructure. The report also identified a potential need for different strategies to address accessibility in different communities throughout the County.
 
“Reliable, affordable and equitable access to high-speed reliable internet is vital for the 21st century, and the pandemic has underscored that reality,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who sponsored the study. “This report provides concrete, actionable information as we consider our next steps to bridge the divide, especially for our most vulnerable communities.” 
 
The report is based on research, fieldwork, and analysis conducted by analysts and engineers from CTC Technology & Energy in late 2019 and the first half of 2020.  The comprehensive report is available for download on the Multnomah County website at: https://multco.us/municipal-broadband.
 
The report highlights that the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered classrooms, offices, businesses and most public buildings,  has exacerbated the affordability challenge illustrated the scale of the equity divide.  Among the key findings:
  • High-speed, reliable broadband at home is critical for work, healthcare, and education with more than half of surveyed respondents needing internet access at home for their jobs.

  • The County has two commercial broadband providers and most of the County is served, except 2,800 homes and businesses in rural areas of northwest and east County.

  • Cable is the most-used internet technology, but fiber performs the best. Cable modem (56 percent) is the leading internet service used, while 17 percent of households have fiber and 17 percent have DSL.

  • Six in 10 respondents said government should work to ensure access. 

  • Support for a government-owned fiber network is strong, (though lower in Eastside cities) but drops as the price of switching to a new provider increases beyond $50 a month.

  • Building a county-wide, fiber-to-premises network would cost an estimated $1 billion and require that at least 36 percent of customers switch to the County service.

  • A public-private partnership (as adopted by other cities in other locations) may allow local governments to more affordably own the long-term infrastructure and secure their policy objectives of increasing access.

  • While fiber-to-the-premises represents the best technical solutions to improving access, the study found that government could also provide basic connectivity to lower-income residents by:

    • Expanding Wi-FI hotspots at any or all of the more than 600 government, schools, and library locations in the County or nonprofit locations.

    • Create a fixed-wireless network to serve lower-income neighborhoods

    • Support direct subsidies for low-income residents pay for existing service.

The county and five cities are excited about the completion of this study and are thankful for the partnership among the municipalities. “All Multnomah County residents should have access to the internet, just like gas, water, or electricity,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, whose district encompasses the five cities involved with the study. “Multnomah County is thrilled to work with its partners on closing the digital equity gap.”

 

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