(TNS) — Multnomah County plans to lead a $300,000 study to evaluate the prospect of building a massive fiber network to provide residential Internet service.
It would be, by far, the nation's largest municipal broadband system. And it could also be hugely expensive, potentially costing a half-billion dollars or more.
Advocates say the time has come to consider the possibility of public Internet service. They point to the essential role online connections play in contemporary life and the repeal of federal net neutrality, which guarded against preferential treatment for certain web services.
"We need to, at the very least, have a public conversation about this and figure out what the options are," said Sharon Meieran, Multnomah County commissioner. Her preference, Meieran said, would be a countywide network with discounted service for low-income households.
Opponents are already lining up against the notion, arguing it's too big an investment given other regional needs.
"At a time when the top priority for Multnomah County residents clearly is addressing the community's housing and homelessness crisis, we question whether considering a government investment in a broadband infrastructure - something Multnomah County has never done before - makes sense," said Sandra McDonough, chief executive of the Portland Business Alliance, in a written statement.
Multnomah County's latest budget, approved last month, allocates $150,000 for the broadband study. The county will seek a matching sum from Portland and other jurisdictions.
The Portland Tribune first reported the county's plans.
Portland contemplated its own public Internet service in 2007 and commissioned a study to evaluate the prospect. The city ruled out the idea when the study came back with a $500 million price tag for the project. Portland pinned its hopes on Google Fiber, which planned to launch fast service in 2016 but abruptly pulled the plug just before the rollout began.
Lake Oswego planned its own service in 2016 but dropped its plan when voters rejected it. The small community of Sandy has its own fiber service, and Hillsboro - which rejected public Internet in 2015 as too expensive - now says it will spend $24 million over six years to bring fiber to parts of the community.
Any large public network would face intense private competition.
Most Multnomah County residents have at least two options for high-speed Internet service, with Comcast and CenturyLink serving Portland. Comcast and Frontier Communications reach much of the rest of the county.
Comcast, by far the region's largest Internet service, opposes Multnomah County's initiative.
"We do not believe that government-owned networks are a good use of municipal funds in areas where the private market is already providing services," the company said in a written statement.
Current prices vary considerably, from Comcast's "Internet Essentials" $10 monthly plan for low-income households up to $85 a month for CenturyLink's superfast gigabit service. (A gigabit is 1,000 megabits per second, 40 times the federal broadband standard.)
Advocates of public Internet service say those prices are too high and the plans come with too many restrictions, particularly given the repeal of net neutrality. They warn that large Internet service providers could start charging a premium for speedy access to popular sites, or block access altogether.
"That really fired up a whole lot of people nationwide, and it made it very clear to a lot more people that the FCC and Congress, essentially, are beholden to the large ISPs," said Michael Hanna, who helps lead Municipal Broadband PDX, a volunteer advocacy group lobbying for public Internet service.
It's too soon to say what public Internet would look like in Multnomah County, Hanna said. He allows a countywide network might prove imprudent, financially. And he acknowledged the emerging, fast "5G" wireless standard might be cheaper than stringing fiber to every single home.
Even then, Hanna said, wireless networks would require high-capacity fiber running to radio towers to provide the fast service. He envisions the county or some other public agencies owning the network, leasing space on its fiber to individual companies who would offer the actual residential service.
"We look at it as foundational for future technologies, future infrastructure that we need," Hanna said.
Portland's leadership has largely turned over since the city's 2007 study of public Internet and it's unclear whether the current council would entertain the county's request to help fund the study. The city has been a vocal advocate of net neutrality but its Office for Community Technology did not respond to an inquiry about the county's plans.
So Hanna said municipal broadband advocates are looking beyond Portland.
"They've had a decade to lead," he said, "and haven't chosen to do so."
©2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.