This is Episode 7 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Mary Beth Henry joins the show to discuss efforts to improve broadband access in Portland, Oregon. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher: This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance talking about community broadband networks. Today we're talking to Mary Beth Henry, the director of the Portland Office for Community Technology and Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. She's been a president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, also called NATOA, which has been essential in preserving local telecommunications authority. In our interview, she talks about past and present efforts in Portland to improve access to broadband for residents and businesses. Here's the interview with Mary Beth.
Thank you, Mary Beth, for talking with us today.
Mary Beth: I'm very happy to be here. Thanks, Chris.
Christopher: I'd like to start by learning a little bit about Brand X in Portland on a really important Supreme Court case that came out of a real innovative approach that Portland tried to take with a broadband network. Can you tell me about that?
Mary Beth: Sure. We had the opportunity in June of 1998, when AT&T applied for approval of a change in control of the TCI Cable franchise. At the time, we had a blossoming ISP, internet service provider, market. We probably had upwards of thirty different providers that our citizens could choose among.
As part of the cable franchise process, local governments have the authority to place conditions to ensure that the legal, technical, and financial conditions of the original franchise will be met. We placed a condition on that franchise transfer which said that the cable modem platform would have to be open. What that would mean would be that anybody subscribed to cable modem for their internet, you would be able to choose any ISP that you wanted.
I'll never forget at the meeting where the commission voted unanimously to place that condition. The attorney from then AT&T said, "I hope you have a really big budget," because we knew right then that they were going to use. Indeed, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court in the Brand X decision and we ended up losing. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cable companies to limit competition and consumer choice. That was sort of our entree into the broadband world, the internet world, and we recognized early on how critical it is that we have choices.
Christopher: What you're saying is that, if you had succeeded, there's a very good chance that rather than just having one provider of the cable broadband in Portland and possibly even all over across the United States, we could have a choice of many that were operating on the same network?
Mary Beth: Exactly. I think we would have gone on a different trajectory. I think that there could have been pipe owners separate from content providers and we would be living in a different world today if we had that separation.
Christopher: Right. The city learned a lesson from that. One of the things that you did was you started figuring out how you can have a network that you would be able to connect public buildings yourself. Can you tell me more about what's now called IRNE?
Mary Beth: Sure, that's the Integrated Regional Network Enterprise. Obviously much better to use the term IRNE. Much shorter and friendlier. It's basically a fiber optic telecommunications network designed to carry most voice, video, and data communications traffic for the city. We also provide high-speed data transmission to other state and local government agencies.
The reason that it came about was we began to look at how much we were spending annually on private telephone service. This was back in the late 90's. It was over eight million dollars a year for simple phone service. We had a very limited data budget at that time.
Christopher: Who is "we"?
Mary Beth: Oh, the city of Portland.
Christopher: Okay. Just the city of Portland was paying eight million dollars for phone services.
Mary Beth: Exactly. We initially embarked on creating a wide area network, but then interest really blossomed and the different bureaus and agencies within the city realized how important communication was and having some control over your costs, but also having the bandwidth that local governments need. We have large bandwidth needs and we also have reliability needs that might be beyond what some others might want.
We launched IRNE in 2002 and we actually went and got our Competitive Local Exchange certificate from the Oregon Public Utility Commission. We really felt that by having a public-sector-owned backbone, we could leverage our expertise and infrastructure in a way that we couldn't if we just were a customer.
I do think it's important to point out that at the time that we were embarking upon this, we first issued an RFP to the private sector to see whether they would be able to meet our needs. We got no reasonable responses that would be able to meet our needs at prices that we could afford.
Christopher: Right and IRNE serves only public facilities. Is that right?
Mary Beth: Yes, we serve only public facilities. That is all we serve. The other interesting twist on it was that at about the same time, the city staff, again, were negotiating a new franchise with now Comcast, the cable provider. Part of the requirement was to have the company build what's called an institutional network, which could provide fiber connectivity to all the schools and libraries. Sort of that last mile connection because the IRNE was really more of a ring and then it connected some of the large city sites where there are a thousand or more employees.
By having Comcast create the institutional network, which they own and operate, and interconnecting the IRNE fiber system, which is owned and operated by the city of Portland, by interconnecting, we really expanded the reach of both networks. Today, we have a situation where it's the city of Portland IRNE staff that provide all the customer interface to the three hundred schools and libraries that are on the system. It's actually been a partnership that has worked very well and we have very high bandwidth at very low cost. Again, this was not without a fight because there ensued in the meantime, there was another lawsuit back in 2003/2004 challenging what the city was doing with the IRNE system.
Christopher: Right. Now just as a quick recap for people who might be confused, the AT&T actually did operate a cable system for awhile, but then they sold that to Comcast. When you talked earlier about AT&T and the cable system, it's the same system then that changed ownership and then Comcast went on to build the Inet with you. Is that right?
Mary Beth: That's correct. Yep. It's Comcast today. I think they're the largest cable company in the world.
Christopher: Yep. Let's talk about that lawsuit. A company said you shouldn't be allowed to serve your own schools and public facilities with your own network?
Mary Beth: Yeah, they do, and I'll get to the lawsuit in just a second, but I think it's important to point out that we have gigabit service and the monthly fee is roughly six-hundred, forty-nine dollars to a site. You might have several users at a site. We might have an after-school program and a county-health program and a school all at one site. They can share that fee and all share in that gigabit bandwidth. You can see that we really made it affordable for our schools and libraries.
A commercial rate for a similar type service when we looked into it would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thousand, two-hundred or more dollars per month. I think it's important to understand the magnitude of the savings. In this way, the scarce public dollars can be spent on teachers and librarians rather than on connectivity.
Christopher: Right and actually we've seen that cost as high as the tens and twenties thousands of dollars per month for a gigabit connection. You're really saving a lot of money, depending on where you are.
Mary Beth: Back to the lawsuit. We had another lawsuit. This lawsuit was Qwest and Time Warner Telecom attacking the city's IRNE system. Basically, what they said was that the city's operation of IRNE violates Section 253.3(a) and (c) of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
Their argument was that IRNE competed with the private telecoms in the governmental market. In other words, all the governmental agencies, the schools and the libraries and local governments, should have been customers of the private telcos. They also argue that because of certain preferences and subsidies granted to IRNE by the city, IRNE could massively and unfairly undercut the telcoms in providing high-speed broadband. Their final argument was that because of the cost advantage, then IRNE effectively prohibited the telcoms from being in the governmental market. The judge rejected those arguments.
Christopher: It's really great when the courts get it right, you know?
Mary Beth: It doesn't happen all the time, does it?
Christopher: Exactly. You really want to congratulate them when we do get those. As we just did in Detroit, apparently, with the Michigan Act.
Mary Beth: A great cable franchise victory.
Christopher: Yes, exactly. Portland is now taking a very proactive approach in terms of trying to solve the broadband. You're served almost entirely by just CenturyLink and Comcast. You've been going through a long process that I think other communities would be interested to learn what you've been doing to do community outreach and find a solution to bring more broadband options to the people.
Mary Beth: Right. The local Broadband Strategic Plan is really part of a continuum of our efforts to promote and develop broadband. When the federal government came out with the National Broadband Plan, that plan is at a very, very high level and we realized that there may be some uniqueness in local communities, so we embarked on a local broadband strategic planning process in 2011.
Of course, this is Portland and that means that there has to be significant community involvement. We were very lucky because we have a savvy, tech-geek community here who are all very, very interested and we had just come off of the Google Initiative, where eleven hundred communities applied to Google to have fiber installed to all homes. The lucky community that was actually selected, of course, as we all know, was Kansas City.
The actual process in Portland of putting together our Google application served as a perfect jumping off point for developing a local Broadband Strategic Plan. Many, many young software engineers who had never been involved in local government before became engaged. We wanted to keep that momentum going, so we established five work groups and we got fifty citizens involved. Really, I would have to say that our local Broadband Strategic Plan is really citizen-driven since it's those fifty citizens working on those five work groups that really came up with the substance of the plan.
Christopher: Do you have a sense of what the next steps are?
Mary Beth: I know many local communities like ours are facing fiscal challenges, so in terms of implementing the plan with our five broad goals, we right now are focusing on really on two areas. One is looking at the partnerships with the other publicly-owned infrastructure providers, the Oregon Health Sciences University and Portland State University and Portland Community College. Large users of bandwidth who have an interest in public infrastructure for public uses, we're looking at where there might be some synergies and some shared resources on the infrastructure side.
Then we're also taking a really hard look at the adoption side because in our scientific survey, locally we found that about twenty-five percent of our households don't have ... now this is from two years ago, so we may have an uptick in the numbers, but nonetheless it's still an issue ... we have about twenty-five percent of the households without internet and when asked why, there were two reasons cited. One was cost and the second was not understanding the relevance or why it would be important or how it could help them in their lives.
We're partnering with the schools and Comcast and CenturyLink on their low-cost internet programs to get the word out and help people understand why broadband is really important. Most jobs listings are online. Students have to have it in order to do their homework, really through K12.
Christopher: K through 12. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mary Beth: It's really quite important. We're doing a lot of outreach and partnering. We recently sponsored a summit with about thirty non-profits and Comcast and CenturyLink to help Comcast and CenturyLink understand what some of the challenges are for the groups that they're trying to address through the low-cost program. Some real interesting issues came out of it that I'm hoping will help. It may be that these programs need to be tweaked in some manners because there are differences at the local level and you might want to use one strategy when you're dealing with a Native American group versus an African American group versus Hmong versus the Russian population. We have seven languages that are spoken in Multnomah County and we need to make sure that is not proving to be a barrier for access to internet.
Christopher: Basically, it comes down to Portland doing two different things. One is looking for opportunities to partner in building some infrastructure in certain areas where it can be most useful and the other is an outreach to help people take better advantage of the broadband networks that are available.
Mary Beth: Right. The second one really is broadband adoption. Because we have such a vibrant software community here, we may be looking at some type of request for information for applications that can help address our sustainability goals.
I think one of the things local governments can be looking at is how can we apply the technology to solving our problems or meeting our policy goals? We have very high goals in the area of sustainability and it seems like that's an area where a lot of these creative geeks may be able to come up with some applications that could help us reach those policy goals.
Christopher: Right. Let's hope so. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Mary Beth: You're very welcome.
Christopher: That was Mary Beth Henry, the director of the Portland Office for Community Technology and Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. To learn more, visit our show page on muninetworks.org, where we have links to some of the materials discussed in the show.
If you have any questions or comments, please tell us directly. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to my colleague Lisa Gonzalez for putting the show together and Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed from Creative Commons. The song is called, "Storm's Over".