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By Christen McCurdy | The Skanner News
Published: 01 March 2018

A small group of Portlanders wants local government to offer Internet access as a public utility. They have the ear of a few government officials, one city council candidate and the co-chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon – but the plan is still in the nascent stages.

Municipal Broadband Portland held a rally in December and one in January to voice support for a municipal Internet provider. Those rallies were small: the first attracted 40 and the second attracted about 30, according to Michael Hanna, an organizer with the group. The Municipal Broadband PDX Facebook group currently has 1,800 members, though.

But Portland residents are interested in the concept again in part because of the Federal Communication Commission’s December vote to repeal net neutrality, opening the door for private Internet providers to block competing applications, slow connection speeds or offer higher speeds only to customers who are willing to pay more.

“The repeal of net neutrality has sparked a wildfire across the nation,” Hanna said.

Earlier this week Oregon’s House of Representatives passed a law requiring state agencies to sign Internet service contracts with providers that abide by net neutrality practices. While Municipal Broadband organizers support net neutrality, they see net neutrality as a symptom of the bigger problem: that two private companies, Comcast and CenturyLink, hold a near-monopoly (and in some neighborhoods, a monopoly) on Internet access in the city. Advocates for making Internet access a public utility say access is critical for daily life activities and for getting ahead in society, that building out and maintaining a fiber network would create jobs and that revenue could help pay for needed services.

The idea isn’t unique to Portland, and the idea is not new, said Russell Senior, president of Personal Telco, a Portland-based nonprofit wireless network and member of Municipal Broadband Portland. Russell, along with Hanna and Roberta Phillip-Robbins, are working to form a 501(c)(4) corporation and political action committee.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Networks page, more than 750 American communities have built publicly owned broadband networks.

“When a community is served by a municipal network, the infrastructure is a publicly-owned asset, similar to a road or an electric utility. There are a variety of models from full retail, in which the city takes on the role of an Internet Service Provider like Comcast or AT&T, delivering services directly to residents and businesses, to Institutional networks in which only municipal facilities receive services,” said Lisa Gonzalez, a senior researcher for the institute’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

Hanna sees the notion as a revival of a Progressive Era notion of making certain utilities part of the public good.

“A hundred years ago there was an effort to municipalize utilities, which is responsible for the city life we know today. There’s been a gradual chipping away at that effort,” Hanna said.

Senior likened the potential creation of a municipal utility to the creation of the Portland Water Bureau in 1885, prior to which there were a number of private water companies in Portland that failed to consistently provide clean water as the city grew.

Last year the City of Portland released a Digital Equity Action Plan that reported 15 percent of Portland households do not have Internet access at home, citing cost as a barrier.

“It starts when young people have homework they cannot complete,” Phillip-Robbins said. That inequity perpetuates itself when low-income people do not have the necessary tools to search for jobs or housing. “If we want to close the gap, this is a major opportunity.”

The plan recommends making sure wi-fi is available at all public buildings throughout the county, and outreach to ensure private programs that provide Internet access to low-income people, such as Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and CenturyLink’s Internet Basics.

Senior said while those programs can be helpful, they can also be complex and difficult to apply for, and that may be why they are so under-utilized.

“The other part of this that’s really compelling is money stays in the community,” Phillip-Robbins said.

The next step is to procure $300,000 for a feasibility study. Hanna, Senior and Phillip-Robbins said they’ve spoken with staff at the city and county and have had interest from both entities, but no firm commitments yet.

Advocates say the initial buildout – and work required to maintain the network – would also create jobs. Because municipal networks can vary, it’s hard to say what the buildout would cost or how many jobs it could create, Gonzalez said.

“The cost varies substantially, based on way a community decides to proceed with deployment. Rapid citywide deployments can run as high as $2,000 per premise, while slower, incremental approaches may be much lower. Other considerations include what assets a community already has, such as existing fiber or conduit they include in the network, and whether or not the construction is aerial or underground,” Gonzalez said.

Valdez Bravo, first vice chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon and a board member at Portland Community College, said the state party will meet later this month to discuss its platform and he hopes it will adopt municipal broadband as a key issue.

“This is a win-win for Portland. I feel it would benefit our entire community,” Bravo said.

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