Five key takeaways on municipal broadband in Multnomah County

October 7, 2020

The report is online here 

On Monday, Oct. 5 County Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Lori Stegmann joined consultant Joanne Hovis of CTC Technology & Energy, to discuss the key findings from a regional feasibility study:

  • People overwhelmingly want access to reliable, high-speed internet in Multnomah County

  • Community members prioritize equity and affordability

  • There is a digital divide based on race & ethnicity, geography, and income level 

  • Internet is generally available in Multnomah County, but not necessarily affordable or high-speed services

  • Countywide municipal broadband would cost approximately $1 billion

  • Multiple options exist to improve access to reliable, high-speed internet services and bridge the digital divide

“There are very clear roles Multnomah County could play as a convener, facilitator or maybe even a provider of some services to improve basic connectivity to lower income residents,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.

Here are the top takeaways:

1. Municipal broadband should prioritize equity and accessibility 

In every meeting CTC conducted, they found partners and stakeholders agree that all residents should have equal access to broadband. They also agreed that all residents should be able to afford internet access, and that everyone should have unfettered access to information over broadband. 

“Reliable, high speed internet is not affordable, or even physically available for many in our community, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, other people of color, immigrants and refugees, and elders. All of this has come to the forefront and has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.” - Commissioner Sharon Meieran

2. Municipal broadband would be expensive, but doable 

Experts estimate municipal broadband would cost $1 billion with a 35 percent “take rate,” or percentage of businesses and homes subscribing to the service. But there are risks. For one, most residents are unwilling to spend more than $50 per month for internet. To be sustainable, the model estimates a 36 percent take rate at $80, which is unlikely.

“Building a countywide fiber to premises network is not infeasible, though it would post a number of significant challenges. For one thing, it would be extremely expensive and there would be significant risk based on rates of participation, price levels and market factors. But it is also clear that people do want government to play a role in ensuring they have meaningful access to the internet.” - Commissioner Sharon Meieran 

3. There is a digital divide based on geography and income

The report shows that low income residents are less connected and those with internet have slower internet.  Thirteen percent of lower income households don’t have any internet access. Yet lower income households continue to pay the same price as high income earners. 

In the sparsely populated areas of Multnomah County, most households are underserved. Nearly 2,800 homes and businesses are entirely underserved in pockets of the northwest and east areas of the County. 

“The issue of internet accessibility spans our whole county. However, income inequality plays a significant role in how different parts of the county suffer more than other parts from the lack of internet access, which runs deep in east county. It’s pretty obvious as you move east across the county the lack of investments in physical infrastructure like streets and bus lines, and internet access is one of those barriers that lower income residents face” - Commissioner Lori Stegmann

4. There are more affordable solutions

There are other things Multnomah County and its partners can do, including a more targeted approach at underserved communities. They could also use buildings as internet hotspots to create a public wifi network. Researchers found the partners could deliver free public wifi services at more than 600 locations countywide for less than $3 million in capital costs. 

“While we may not be able to have internet connectivity to every single household, there are less expensive options that we could implement more quickly and while it may not be the most ideal, I think at this point it is just incumbent upon us to do everything we can to get internet access to as many people as possible.” - Commissioner Lori Stegmann

5. Next steps involve collaboration with East County partners, stakeholders

While the findings illustrate several obstacles, Multnomah County and its partners are committed to exploring every option to bridge the digital divide. Looking ahead, they anticipate more discussions with community members about how government can help--even if a $1 billion municipal broadband network is unlikely. 

“[We will be] convening our partners and other stakeholders, community members to say ‘here is the situation. Now we know what is feasible. Here are different steps we would take, what each of these scenarios look like and now where do we want to go with it?” - Commissioner Sharon Meieran

There is widespread support for high speed internet that is affordable and reaches everyone. A $1 billion countywide network is just one of the options to bridge a digital divide driven by geography and income levels.