Hillsboro, meet HiLight
On a sunny Friday morning, crews in bright orange vests and hard hats run flexible pipe into the ground outside W. Verne McKinney Elementary School. A few traffic cones divert traffic as men with shovels dig and a large industrial boring machine thunders just off the street.
It's the kind of construction work you'd expect in any residential neighborhood on a warm spring day, but the construction site marks the first tangible evidence of the city of Hillsboro's new fiber optic internet utility, expected to launch in early 2020.
For the past year, the city has been working on launching its own high-speed internet service. The project would offer up to 1 gigabit upload and download speeds as a city utility, similar to its water or sewer services.
On Tuesday, March 19, city staff unveiled the name of their new service: HiLight — a portmanteau of "Hillsboro" and "light," according to Megan Eatough, the project's spokeswoman. Light is what fiber-optic internet uses to send data.
City officials said last spring that having access to high-speed Internet is a necessity in the 21st Century. City leaders said the best way to bring more affordable high-speed internet access to the community was to make it a city utility.
"Broadband is essential," Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway told the Tribune last week. "Every city in one way or another needs to provide this. For some, that means private companies, but for us to be able to do this is great."
Municipal internet is rare in Oregon, and Hillsboro would be the largest city in the state to offer its own internet service, though several other Portland area cities are looking into similar projects, including the city of Sherwood and Multnomah County.
"There are lots of eye on us, not just locally but nationally," said Greg Mont, the city's information services director. "We are one of the bigger municipalities nationwide to do something like this," Mont said.
The city of Longmont, Colo., a city about the size of Hillsboro, runs a similar city-owned internet service. Chattanooga, Tenn., a city about half-again as big as Hillsboro, has operated its own fiber-optic network since 2010.
When will it come to my neighborhood?
But getting a brand new city utility off the ground hasn't been easy, according to the city's Finance Director Suzanne Linneen.
"At one point, we had to do this with our water department and sewer services," Linneen said. "We're birthing this utility. We're standing it up on its own for the very first time."
The city first considered a municipal internet service back in 2014, but shelved the idea when it didn't pencil out.
Mont said city officials were still intrigued by the idea, and as the price for installation dropped and the city broke ground on South Hillsboro — a massive new neighborhood expected to bring 20,000 new residents to the city over the next two decades near Cornelius Pass Road — the city saw an opportunity.
"(South Hillsboro) gave us a head start in a lot of ways," Mont said. "That shifted some things for us."
With acres of undeveloped land, the city could connect all of South Hillsboro to a fiber-optic internet before any homes were built, saving millions on installation costs.
When HiLight goes live in 2020, officials says it will be made available to South Hillsboro residents first, as well as the city's Southwest corner, stretching from Shute Park west, south of Main Street.
Mont estimates about 3,500 homes and businesses in those areas will sign up for HiLight initially. That number will grow as HiLight expands to other neighborhoods, he said.
From there, HiLight will expand northward. It could be as long as a decade before the system is fully built out, covering all of Hillsboro, Mont said.
The cost for homeowners and businesses hasn't been worked out, but the city has said it plans to offer an option for low-income families, which could be as low as $10 per month. The city has said it will start the program in Southwest Hillsboro near Shute Park, because many residents in that area can't afford to pay for high-speed internet.
"There are goals we, as a government, want to deliver to our community that a private internet service provider would not be as focused on," Mont said. "They're here for profit, and they should be. We're here for the community."
School district partnership saves millions
The city opted not to go out for a public bond to pay for the multi-million dollar project. instead the city is using a portion of the state's Gain Share funds — which couples property tax breaks for large-scale investment with state funds that partly offset those losses — to pay for the program.
Residents who opt to stay with their current internet service providers won't pay for the service, Callaway said. The $43 million program is expected to pay for itself in about 10 years, Linneen said.
To bring HiLight to life, the city has partnered with the Hillsboro School District, which was planning to install its own fiber optic network after the passage of its 2017 capital construction bond. Hillsboro School District will be a major tenant of the city's network, with a portion of the city's fiber-optic lines devoted to school district use.
By partnering with the city, the school district is expected to save about $5 million over the next 10 years, said Superintendent Mike Scott.
Those savings are needed, Callaway said, as lower than desired state funding is expected to cost the district millions in budget cuts over the next two years.
"They're looking at $20 to $25 million in cuts, so (fiber-optic internet) is an expense they don't have to make," said Callaway, a former Hillsboro School District principal and administrator. Looking to the future. "That's a half-million a year that's staying in our classrooms and in our schools. And it's a higher speed internet than they would have otherwise."
Utility could mean big for future development
Since the project's announcement last year, Callaway said he said heard from countless residents excited about the project.
"Based on the response I've heard from our residents? Honestly, it can't come soon enough," he said.
While high-speed internet is something many residents are interested in, Callaway said it could also have an impact on the city's economic development. Hillsboro, home to Intel, Genentech and dozens of other high-tech businesses, is largely seen as a tech-friendly city.
Decades ago, Callaway said, after the city installed larger than necessary water pipes, several high-tech companies including Intel became interested in Hillsboro as a place to build manufacturing plants.
"This positions us for things we don't even know might come down the path 20 or 30 years from now," Callaway said. "This may provide opportunities for our city we may not have had otherwise. Industries that haven't even been invented yet."
Callaway said while the project will take some time to reach every resident, it's one many residents have been anticipating for years.
"This is the kind of thing that people who live in Hillsboro expect from their city," Callaway said. "We have a strong track record of being thoughtfully bold. This is another example of that."
By Geoff Pursinger
Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
Visit Hillsboro Tribune on Facebook and Twitter
Follow Geoff at @ReporterGeoff
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.