High Hopes for Expanding Broadband Access in Oregon

The Eugene, Ore., City Council wants to explore expanding EUGNet, downtown's open-access high-speed network, which bolsters business in the city's commercial center, hoping to reach all of the city’s homes and shops.

by Adam Duvernay, The Register-Guard / November 25, 2019

(TNS) — Before the high-speed internet network in downtown Eugene, Ore., can snake through the rest of the city, local officials say they first have pressing questions to answer.

How will the fiber optic cables be installed across the city? Who would own them? And who's going to pay for it?

The Eugene City Council last month asked city staff to explore an expansion of EUGNet, downtown's open-access high-speed network. That network bolsters business in the city's commercial center, but there always was a hope it would one day reach every home and shop in Eugene.

"We don't even have a plan yet to expand it," said Eugene Economic Strategies Manager Anne Fifield.

EUGNet was designed for downtown, and so far the network is accomplishing its economic development mission, Fifield said. More than 80 buildings downtown are connected to the network. Fifield said existing businesses have grown and new ones have re-located to take advantage of it, evident in a reduction in downtown vacancy from 10% at the start of the EUGNet project build-out in 2017 to its current occupancy rate of 7%.

"We'd probably be two to three years behind without EUGNet," said Raymond Hardman, CEO of Emerald Broadband, one of several internet service providers utilizing the network. "We wouldn't be able to provide the same level of competitive speeds and capabilities."

The network gives those businesses the capacity to transmit and receive huge quantities of data — such as large video projects — at speeds inaccessible to them before its installation. For a city hoping to capitalize on its growing tech sector, EUGNet boosters say the fiber optic network is invaluable.

Though the network's super-fast speed only is accessible to connected downtown clients, EUGNet's effects don't stop where the fiber optics end. Oregon Technology Association Vice President Matt Sayre says it's influenced the citywide internet market, lowering prices and increasing speeds.

"The benefit extends far beyond the borders of downtown," Sayre said. "Even if you are not connected to a gigabit network, by it being in the same region as you, it is helping you. Your speeds are getting faster because of the market competition and your prices are getting more competitive."

In expectation of one day offering those services more directly to Eugene residents across town, the network was built to spread from downtown.

Currently only 7% of the city's population has access to a fiber optic network, according to internet consumer firm BroadbandNow.

"Introducing a fiber network is likely to spur additional private competition and help to bring additional residents online so that they can find better jobs, take advantage of tele-health services and ensure that their children have access to the internet for learning," said BroadbandNow Research Editor-in-Chief Tyler Cooper.

How would fiber optic internet be installed citywide?

EUGNet's fiber optic tentacles are owned by the Eugene Water and Electric Board, running through their underground conduits in downtown. But if and when the city expands the network, it's not clear whether those fiber optic cables all would be installed in a similar fashion to what already exists.

"There's a number of ways how to actually technically built it out," Fifield said. "We have to do an analysis to figure out what's the best way."

The fiber optic cables all would connect through one place, as they currently do. An underground facility downtown owned and managed by the Lane Council of Governments serves as the connection hub for the EWEB-owned fiber optic cables.

"What you have in there is a combination of private networks and public networks. As an interconnection facility, it's really a place where those two networks interact," said LCOG Principal Planner Jacob Callister. "When this was first built, there were a few anchor tenants. There were a lot of public entities that saw some benefit in having a presence here and interconnecting. As more and more tenants gain a presence here, that snowballed."

While that facility likely would remain the primary hub for any citywide network, the current fiber optic system does not reach beyond downtown. If the city wants to expand, it likely will need to run fiber optic cables underground, up on poles or spread the network out in a patchwork using both options.

One tactic the city could deploy is the adoption of a "dig once" policy, Cooper said, in which any road construction or renovation that already would require the expensive process of excavation is required to simultaneously install infrastructure to facilitate the growth of a fiber optic network.

"It's not the perfect solution, but it's something that has allowed areas to get around that ridiculously high cost of expansion," Cooper said.

Cooper said some municipal networks are propped up entirely on poles, which avoids excavation costs but has its own unique challenges.

"I don't know that one way is better than others. I've seen multiple municipal networks and some private companies using a mixed approach," Cooper said. "If your goal is ubiquity, to cover the entire town, you almost have to expect to use a patchwork development style."

Who would own the expanded fiber optic network?

Answering "how" means simultaneously answering "who," according to Fifield.

"EWEB has not actively committed to expanding the network beyond the downtown," Fifield said. "Those questions have to be answered in tandem because who owns the poles and where it sits on the poles is a legal and technical question, so you need attorneys and technical people at the table."

Because EWEB already had run fiber optic infrastructure through its downtown underground electrical system, they didn't have to dig into city streets to expand access to it. EWEB linked downtown buildings into its existing fiber optic ring and remains the entity owning and maintaining the cables.

Six private internet service providers now lease those cables to serve individual customers.

"It's pretty common to have multiple hands in the pot for this sort of thing," Cooper said. "One of the more popular municipal models is to have a public utility fronting the logistics ... . The reality is that many cities interested in establishing a municipal network really have no idea where to begin."

Having multiple stakeholders in a citywide fiber optic network can be a good thing because it disperses the cost of installation and upkeep, Cooper said. But too many voices, disparate commercial interests and decentralized control over operations and future plans can complicate the system.

"Like a camel or a horse designed by committee," he said. "There's a lot of things that can slow down the pace of expansion due to different needs."

Who's going to pay for it (and how)?

The total downtown project is expected to cost nearly $4 million when an expansion to the connection hub is finished. Most of the money came from property taxes destined for downtown renewal projects. The project also received private dollars, a U.S. Commerce Department grant and is expected to get a $1.7 million reimbursement from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

"The technical solution has a cost," Fifield said. "The funding tool we had for the downtown project doesn't exist for the rest of the city."

To keep the solution from getting too complicated, Cooper said limit who pays for it.

"The simplest path forward has always been to have the city pay for it in one way or another and have the city recoup those costs," Cooper said.

Cooper said part of the trouble is local residents often aren't engaged in the build-out process because they already live without a fiber optic network.

"This is an argument for the patchwork, phased rollout of a network like this. It gets the community engaged," Cooper said. "We field calls from hundreds of consumers every day talking about their dissatisfaction with one network or another. This is something people do get riled up about."

©2019 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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