Building a publicly owned internet system across Multnomah County is probably too expensive

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
Oct. 6, 2020 12:25 a.m. Updated: Oct. 6, 2020 1:47 p.m.

Building a publicly owned internet system in Multnomah County is likely too expensive and would require substantial subsidies, according to a new study conducted for local governments.

The study was commissioned recently by Fairview, Gresham, Portland, Troutdale, Wood Village and Multnomah County because many residents do not have access to the internet. Or they have access but at a prohibitive cost.

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County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, said internet access, particularly during the pandemic, is not a luxury, and that’s why elected leaders are looking at a public internet option.

“It would be extremely expensive, and there would be significant risk based on rates of participation, price levels and market factors,” Meieran said. “But it was also clear that people do want government to play a role in ensuring that they have meaningful access to the internet.”

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She said residents need internet access now to work from home because of COVID-19, and kids need it for school.

The study by CTC Technology And Energy found that while 96% of homes in Multnomah County have some form of internet, 13% of low-income families are not connected. The research did suggest cheaper ways of getting everyone onto the internet, such as subsidized subscriptions and installing wifi hot spots in schools and community centers.

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said she wants to develop strategies to ensure reliable and affordable internet, “…which most likely means smaller, more specific strategies for communities.”

Joanne Hovis, the president of CTC Technology and Energy, said a “fiber-to-doorstep” public internet is feasible, but carries risk.

“The data suggest that the network would require about 35 percent ... of the market would have to buy services from this broadband enterprise at approximately $80 per household,” Hovis said. "Based on those assumptions, and a reasonable interest rate for debt service, this network would pay for itself.”

Some communities, including Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Alabama, have developed public internet systems and seen 35% of customers or more sign up. But unlike Multnomah County, those cities did not already have several local “fiber-to-doorstep” broadband providers.

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