Portlanders Launch Grassroots Campaign for Municipal Broadband in Oregon

Interest in broadband as a utility continues to rise across the country and in places where elected officials need a show of support, grassroots groups are stepping up. Recently in Portland, Oregon, a group of locals launched Municipal Broadband PDX, an effort to grow an already increasing momentum in the Rose City.

No Stranger to Fiber

The idea of better connectivity and local control over infrastructure is something that Portland has wrestled with for several years. With Comcast and CenturyLink controlling much of the market in the city of about 647,000 people, citizens have always struggled to get fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. The city failed at its attempt to provide free citywide Wi-Fi and the estimated price tag on a feasibility study more than ten years ago scared off the community. At one point, the city seemed about to get Google Fiber, but the plan never came to fruition.

Portland’s Integrated Regional Network Enterprise (IRNE) serves public entities with fiber connectivity and its leadership has been part of discussions on how to bring better access to businesses and residents. Back in 2012, we spoke with Mary Beth Henry with the Director of the Portland Office for Community Technology about early discussions. That was episode 7 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Moving Forward

logo-MBPDX-Rose.png Earlier this summer, Municipal Broadband PDX scored a victory when the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved $150,000 for a broadband study. Commissioners responded to the realization that many lower-income folks in the county don’t have access to the connections they need for typical 21st century daily activities. Michael Hanna, a Municipal Broadband PDX representative, told the Board, “Almost 30% of low-income households in the Portland Metro area lack broadband access, and this disproportionally affects communities of color and other marginalized or under-resourced groups.”

Like the “homework gap” and equitable access, Commissioners expressed concern for network neutrality protections. Many other local community leaders are more interested than ever in publicly owned infrastructure for the same reason; the Multnomah County Board felt funding a study will help hash out the possibilities. County communications director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti told the Board:

“We have no idea what the ultimate cost for consumer might be, but the study will help us understand. Municipal broadband by definition is lower cost for consumers than commercial internet service because it eliminates profit.”

County Commissioner Sharon Meieran noted that publicly owned Internet infrastructure could create economic opportunities for the city of Portland, the urban center of the county, as well as the more rural areas in Multnomah County. She also expressed a hope that the city of Portland would contribute to the study.

Need to Compete

Other communities in the northwest are taking action and doing what they need to improve local Internet services, rather than wait hopelessly for incumbents such as Comcast and CenturyLink to upgrade outdated infrastructure. 

Hillsboro decided earlier this year to move ahead with a communications utility and is keeping with the needs of their lower-income residents a priority as they develop their network. Sandy has offered service to property owners for years and inspired us to produce a video about their $60 gigabit connectivity. The community of Sandy has enjoyed a range of benefits from their investment; you can get the details in our 2015 report, SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown, USA.

Kicking It Off

In order to officially launch the Municipal Broadband PDX effort, the group hosted a kickoff event on August 1st. Our Christopher Mitchell attended, spoke to the crowd, and helped fire up the Portland broadband heroes attending the event. Commissioner Lori Stegmann also attended and pledged her support to the project.

As part of the official launch, the crowd viewed their new campaign film, “Xfinity War.” Check it out:

You can follow the Municipal Broadband PDX campaign at their website, enroll for updates, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter (@PublicNetPDX).

Image of the Pearl District and Broadway Bridge in Portland by Alfred Twu CC0, from Wikimedia Commons.