In an effort to build a “21st-century infrastructure,” a coalition of jurisdictions is working to bring public high-speed internet to Multnomah County.
At a Tuesday briefing, the Board of County Commissioners heard a progress report on a proposed Countywide municipal broadband project. If successful, Multnomah County could join dozens of American communities in building a publicly-owned, regional internet network.
Municipal broadband is the concept of a publicly-owned, not-for-profit internet utility that can deliver gigabit internet speed through fiber optic cables. Unlike private networks, municipal broadband promises public access to the internet just like any other utility. Commissioner Sharon Meieran secured the funding for the initiative and has spearheaded the initiative since the beginning.
Bob Leek, who directs the Department of County Assets, briefed the commissioners on the effort. He said municipal broadband will improve access to networks for all residents. In parts of Multnomah County, as little as 40 percent of households have access to high-speed internet.
“The digital equity gap is real in our County,” Leek said. “Access to connectivity should be like access to water and electricity.”
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson echoed Leek. Many of her constituents in District 3 have limited access to high-speed internet. “This is an equity issue,” she said. “This kind of access to high-speed internet is just going to be a necessity in the future.”
When implemented, Leek said municipal broadband can better prepare communities for newer technologies: 5G, the next generation of wireless technology; renewable energy grids; electric vehicle charging stations; and other “smart community” devices.
So far Multnomah County, the County Library and cities of Portland, Wood Village, Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview have pledged to conduct a feasibility study. The study will look at the community’s infrastructure needs, risks and benefits of municipal broadband, potential partners, and funding opportunities.
When asked about the different jurisdictions’ contributions to the project, Leek explained the total cost of the feasibility study is expected to be $300,000, with Multnomah County contributing $125,000 and the three smaller cities contributing a combined $50,000. The City of Portland has promised $25,000.
“We won't be the first community out of the gate to try and attempt to do this,” Leek said. “Given the size of our community and the complexity of our community it’s going to take a large coalition of people to pull this off successfully.”
In the coming months, the partners will look at ways to gather input from the public through community meetings, events, door-to-door visits, and social media. The findings are expected to be revealed in Summer 2019.
“I'm very excited about the opportunities for outreach that we will be engaged in and the coalition and partnership of this," Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. "I hope that, not just the outcome we get from this, but the process by which we do it is a model."