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After the Shute Park area and South Hillsboro, officials aren't sure yet who will receive the city-owned service next.

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF HILLSBORO - A HiLight employee carries a ladder while working to install the city-owned internet service.After years of planning and construction, HiLight — Hillsboro's city-owned high-speed internet service — has been launched for a small group of people in the Shute Park area.

Neary 800 residents and businesses around Shute Park, an area with one of the lowest fiber-optic broadband connectivity rates in the city, are the first private customers in Hillsboro to have the service available, city officials announced Thursday, Dec. 10.

According to the city government, a handful of residents have already started their service and they expect businesses to join soon.

"This is momentous. This really is something that is hugely important for Hillsboro, not just now but moving forward," said Mayor Steve Callaway.

Over the next 10 years, officials expect to connect the rest of the city as they build more fiber huts — main switchboards for the network — in other neighborhoods.

The city boasts numerous benefits to customers with HiLight.

Customers can have 1-gigabit internet speeds for $55 per month — less than the price for the same speed internet of other providers in the area. Providers such as Comcast offer lower-speed internet plans for a similar price.

Residents who qualify for federal low-income assistance programs can purchase 1-gigabit internet for as low as $10 per month, an offering Callaway called "a huge affirmation of our commitment to equity."

City officials stress that pricing is straightforward, with no added fees or taxes and no introductory prices that expire.

They add the service doesn't cap data or slow internet speeds based on how customers use it.

Margaret Bertucci, who was among the first Shute Park area residents to receive the service, says she wanted HiLight because her money will go back into her community instead of to a large corporation.

"This is for the community," Bertucci said. "It just kind of felt like a civic duty to help support the city. I also felt like doing that would help to make the service more accessible for those who have trouble affording (internet)."

Bertucci, who moved to Hillsboro three years ago and works for the Northwest Regional Education Service District, says she and her daughter, a Portland Community College student, love the fast internet connection as they work from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

If connection issues ever arise, Bertucci said, she will be glad the people to respond will be city employees, not an automated customer service system.

Bertucci said she first started paying attention to the city's messaging about HiLight about a year ago. At the time, she wanted it to be available sooner, she said.

"I had my frustrations because I saw so many things and I was like, 'OK, I'm ready, where is it?'" Bertucci said.

The city initially planned to begin rolling out the service in selected neighborhoods in 2019 as it constructed fiber-optic cables.

Officials pushed the expected launch date back to early 2020 after forging a partnership with the Hillsboro School District in 2018. In exchange for a $12.6 million investment from the district's 2017 bond, the city agreed to connect all Hillsboro schools to high-speed internet first.

The service launched at eight Hillsboro schools in February. By this summer, all 44 district facilities were connected.

PMG FILE PHOTO: - Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway with Erika Lopez, board chair of the HIllsboro School District, students and other city and school district officials at the launch of HiLight for eight Hillsboro schools in February.Brad Nosler, general manager of HiLight, said supply chain issues this year caused by the impacts of the pandemic delayed the delivery of materials used to construct HiLight's infrastructure, further delaying the service's launch.

Nosler said building the service from the ground up, starting with a fiber-optic backbone running throughout the Hillsboro School District, has taken a lot of work and created some delays.

He said progressively bringing city neighborhoods online will be a slow, deliberate process.

"We're crawling before we walk, and we're going to walk before we run," Nosler said. "A large part of that is just to make sure that we're identifying anything, making sure we can maintain a pace that delivers good experiences to the customers."

He says making sure the service installation process works as planned, internet speeds are what they should be and doing signal testing will be ongoing work as neighborhoods are brought online.

South Hillsboro will be next to receive the service, hopefully by summer 2021, Nosler said. The city has been able to install HiLight's fiber-optic cables throughout South Hillsboro, a development expected to add as many as 20,000 new residents to the city, while the development is under construction.

While some residents have already moved into their new South Hillsboro homes, the complete buildout of South Hillsboro is not expected to be finished for years to come. Nosler said HiLight is focusing for now on areas of South Hillsboro that have already been developed.

In late summer 2021, the city expects to bring a western portion of the Shute Park area online, Nosler said.

Nosler says the city hasn't yet decided what areas will receive the service after that.

When and where certain areas receive the HiLight service will be influenced in part by the revenue the city receives from its new customers, Nosler said.

"We very much have a pay-as-we-go approach," he said.

PMG FILE PHOTO: - Brad Nosler, general manager of HiLight, Hillsboro's city-owned high-speed internet service, speaks to residents during a presentation on the service in October 2019.Hillsboro has dedicated $28 million over the next seven years to fund the internet service, Nosler said. It has spent more than $9 million so far.

In 2015, when officials were first considering a service like HiLight, a study commissioned by the city showed such a service would cost more than $65 million.

Another internet provider at the time was considered building fiber-optic infrastructure, but they were only considering certain neighborhoods, Callaway said.

"That was a non-starter," he said, adding that policymakers wanted to make sure all residents had access to high-speed internet.

The city initially tabled the project due to the high-cost projections.

By a couple of years later, the technology had advanced, and cost projections were lower, motivating officials to give the project the green light.

Callaway says the pandemic has only reaffirmed his conviction that creating HiLight was the right move, with families relying on high-speed internet to work and do distance learning at home.

"The pandemic has revealed, and really in some way exacerbated or emphasized, some of the inequities that exist," Callaway said.

Officials project the service will be stable financially if 35% of internet customers in the city purchase HiLight when it's fully rolled out, Nosler said.

He says Hillsboro is confident about that proportion after looking at other similarly sized cities such as Longmont, Colorado, which rolled out a city-owned internet service in 2014.

It's unclear how other internet providers such as Comcast will react to HiLight, but it's possible the company could lower rates in the area and offer more discounts to new customers.


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