Hillsboro's planned ISP is good news for residents
It's taken us some time to really let the news sink in.
The City of Hillsboro has decided to start offering high-speed internet as a city utility.
Starting in 2019, residents in a handful of Hillsboro neighborhoods will be able to sign up for internet through the city, the same way city residents receive their water.
But instead of quality H2O coming out of the taps, residents will be able to surf the internet with ease.
This decision has been a long time coming and has been a regular item on the city's bucket list for years.
Back in 2015, planners working on the project initially recommended against it. It would cost too much money, they said at the time. But two weeks ago, city councilors committed to making the plan a reality, agreeing to phase in the project over the next decade.
Three years ago, the city expected to pay $66 million for a service that less than one-third of the city residents would use, planners estimated.
But times have changed.
The city is already installing a fiber-optic network at city-owned buildings, such as the Hillsboro Civic Center, fire houses, city planning offices, etc. The city has said it wants to connect local schools and other government agencies to the network as well. It's not that much harder, officials told us, to connect the rest of the city.
There's a lot we don't yet know about the project, but we're excited about the few facts we do know.
The city is promising at least 1 gigabit per second download and upload speeds — that's 40 times faster than the federal broadband standard.
Residents are expected to pay a flat $50 per month fee for internet access. The bill would come as part of residents' standard water and garbage bills. Low-income households would pay as little as $10 per month.
That last part is what really makes this plan work, for us. The city's commitment to providing the service to the city's poorest residents is a must if this project is to be successful.
Hillsboro City Councilor Anthony Martin is right when he says that costly private internet service providers like Comcast and CentruyLink have left a digital divide among the community, with the poorest city residents — who need reliable internet access to apply for jobs, do their school work or just live comfortably — unable to afford it.
In 2014, Google seriously considered expanding its Google Fiber internet service to the Portland area, including Hillsboro. Those plans never materialized, and in hindsight, that may have proven to be a good thing. A 2014 investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that only 10 percent of low-income residents in Kansas City — Google Fiber's first foray into municipal broadband — actually used the service, compared to more than 40 percent of middle- and high-income neighborhoods.
If we truly want to close the divide, we need the service to be available everywhere, and affordable enough that it can be available to anyone, otherwise it fails at its core mission.
The truth is that in 21st-century Hillsboro, the internet is as vital as any other public utility. In the same way that residents and businesses wouldn't be able to live comfortably without access to city roads, Americans rely on internet service providers as the on-ramps to the internet, which we rely on more and more every day to do everything from pay our bills to watch cute videos online.
Don't get us wrong. It's an expensive proposition.
The city plans to spend $4 million per year on the plan through 2023, along with money from Gain Share, a state program that allows the county to channel some state income tax dollars into special projects. Customer revenue will pay for operations after that, city staff tell us.
Portland considered plans for a city-owned network back in 2007 but balked at the nearly half-billion price the city would have to pay at the time. The high cost of installation also kept Lake Oswego from approving a similar network in 2016. Voters shot down that plan after opponents said Lake Oswego residents would be stuck with the bill.
But the idea has merit, and plenty of success stories. The City of Sandy has offered publicly owned internet for years. SandyNet, as it's known, offers gigabit service for about $60 each month.
Monmouth and Independence, near Salem, worked together to form a joint ISP for their two communities in 2005.
Their service is more expensive, at $125 per month for gigabit service, but it's reliable and at comparable prices to Comcast, which offers gigabit speeds to some Portland-area homes and businesses for a similar fee.
But with luck, Hillsboro's plan will encourage other cities to follow suit. While we don't expect it soon, the idea of a Forest Grove-Cornelius shared ISP or a Beaverton ISP are exciting to think about.
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