By Daniel Perez-Crouse

A new study commissioned by Multnomah County (and neighboring cities) assessed the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber-to-the-premises network.

The study provides data and information relevant to potentially addressing digital disparities in a climate where people are increasingly dependent on internet services due to the pandemic.

The 281-page report, Fiber-to-the-Premises Feasibility Study, was carried out by CTC Technology and Energy, the independent IT engineering and communications consulting firm. The results are built on the information gathered from surveys, evaluations of current/prospective infrastructure and more.

The main goal evaluated in the study is creating a state-of-the art and future-proof fiber optic network to serve the entirety of Multnomah County at 1Gbps speeds. It was commissioned fall 2019 and survey work was completed in March.

The president of CTC, Joanne Hovis, acknowledged the study’s unexpected relevance to issues faced amidst the pandemic. Even prior to COVID-19, District 1 Commissioner, Sharon Meieran, who sponsored the study, felt internet access and broadband speeds are now necessary due to how many vital, daily functions require it. The study spoke to this in its findings.

It revealed the most frequent uses of internet revolves around online shopping, recreational streaming and social media.

More than one-half of respondents (55 percent) said their job required them to have at-home internet and 67 percent said they frequently pay their bills online. 46 percent reported using the internet for educational reasons and many occasionally access medical services online (for example, viewing their medical records).

“It’s not a luxury at this point,” said Meieran.

While most of the county can access internet in some capacity, approximately 2,800 homes and businesses (4 percent of respondents) lack any availability, mainly an issue for sparsely populated areas.

In addition, 13 percent of low-income households don’t have internet and for those that do, it tends to be at lower speeds.

“It’s pretty obvious as you move east across the county, there is a lack of investments in physical infrastructure like streets and bus lines. Internet access is just one more of those barriers that lower-income residents face,” said District 4 Commissioner, Lori Stegmann.

When the subject comes to government ensuring and improving internet access, the study showed plenty of support.

Six in 10 respondents were agreeable, especially in Portland. Looking back on the study, Hovis was “surprised” at the “remarkable amount of trust” respondents had in their local government to operate in this space, however, there is less favor for this in other cities (Fairview, Gresham, Troutdale, etc.).

The study also posed the possibilities of public/private partnerships and referenced precedents set in instances like Huntsville, AL partnering with Google for similar goals.

Portland respondents were more for an explicitly government-operated network and showed greater faith in public institutions over private companies. This is less the case for east-side cities (half of their respective populations were not in favor of publicly run models).

Commissioner Stegmann is aware of government apprehension in this area, one of the locations most affected by lacking internet infrastructure, saying, “Some past experiences have been negative, traumatic or at the very least less than supportive, and I think this is what we’re seeing in the data from the Municipal Broadband study.”

However, she has “made a priority” to improve these relations and notes the need for strong public/private and jurisdictional partnerships to accomplish these goals in East County.

“By engaging and inviting to the table those who are impacted by these kinds of policy decisions is how we earn that trust,” Stegmann said.

Commissioner Meieran said building such an ambitious network is not “infeasible,” though it would pose challenges and be “extremely expensive.”

The study claims it would cost $1 billion and that figure is based on one of many predictive models broken down extensively in the report.

The study takes into account factors like funding options (grants and bonds), costs of building and maintaining a network, required interest from the county and more.

A 36.5 percent take-rate (switching or subscribing to the service) of households and businesses would be required to maintain positive cash flow based on a four percent interest rate and prices for 1Gbps service options as follows: residential at $80 per month, small commercial at $100 per month and medium commercial at $250 per month.

Hovis showed confidence in this, but noted things are subject to change given future, variable circumstances.

“What looks like it could be very feasible based on certain pricing and assumptions becomes much more challenging if those certain circumstances change,” she said.

Moreover, the survey showed respondent interest in switching to a fiber service decreased if the price went over $50. “If the average price has to go down to $50, what it then requires is something like a 60-70 percent take-rate,” Hovis added. In her opinion and that of CTC, it is borderline infeasible given the current market.

Despite these outlined difficulties, Meieran makes it clear that the purpose of this study was not to imply Multnomah County should immediately attempt a municipal internet network or jump on a specific plan.

It was primarily done to evaluate if this network concept is feasible. Regardless of what action is taken, Hovis stressed this study provides substantial data that will be a “powerful set of tools” for measuring broadband internet needs in the future.

Aside from its grander ambitions, the study highlights the possibility of leveraging existing city infrastructure and resources to provide basic connectivity to those without any in the form of comparatively inexpensive and quicker to implement options.

One option involves strategically placing wifi hotspots throughout the County, particularly in low-income areas.

Hovis says free, public wi-fi can’t replace robust broadband, but “any option that we can use to add to the available bandwidth for those families, so their children are not sitting outside fast-food restaurants on the curb trying to take AP tests” would be small, important steps on the way to greater internet access and equity.

Meieran echoed the importance of having this data set and newly-detailed awareness of where the county stands and what it needs for these goals.

“And sometimes, that puts you at the front of the line when you are applying to these different grants,” she said.

The full Fiber-to-the-Premises Feasibility Study can be found at multco.us/file/92615/download.