Three years after Hillsboro shelved plans to offer its own internet service, the city has changed its mind and plans to go ahead with the project.
Hillsboro plans to extend an existing, city-owned fiber-optic network to serve residents and businesses. The city says it can offer superfast internet connections for about $50 a month – or as little as $10 a month for low-income residents. Hillsboro expects service will be available in some areas as soon as next spring.
Pending City Council approval at the end of the month, Hillsboro would allocate $4 million next year, and another $4 million in each of the subsequent five years, to begin a fiber buildout. City officials say a citywide system could take a decade to complete.
“This helps bring internet access to all homes in Hillsboro,” said Mayor Steve Callaway. A retired principal, Callaway said it’s especially important to him that children throughout the community have internet access at home.
Consultants the city hired in 2015 recommended against building a residential fiber network, estimating a full buildout would cost $66 million and be only “marginally” viable. After conducting a survey, consultants estimated 28 percent of residents would use the service.
City officials say there have been important changes since then.
For one, plans to develop 8,000 homes in South Hillsboro create an opportunity to build a brand-new system in a new community that could eventually house 20,000.
And Hillsboro officials look to the experience of other small communities, including a project in Longmont, Colorado, where they say half of residents signed up for the municipal service. Hillsboro now estimates 36 percent of its residents would subscribe to the city service, a number officials call “conservative.”
Several smaller Oregon communities have experimented with public internet service, including Ashland, Sandy, Monmouth, Independence and Sherwood. Some services appear to be operating steadily but others have endured years of financial problems.
No Oregon community of Hillsboro’s size (population 105,000) has tried municipal internet, though several have considered it.
Portland gave public internet a serious look in 2007 but ruled out building its own network after projections put the price tag at nearly a half-billion dollars. In 2016, Lake Oswego voters rejected a plan to bring public internet service to one of Oregon’s wealthiest communities.
Hillsboro says it plans to start by running fiber to the Southwest Hillsboro/Shute Par area, a relatively low-income neighborhood. Hillsboro says it hopes public internet service could help establish a more equitable community.
South Hillsboro would also be part of next year’s buildout, running fiber directly into brand-new houses. That’s less expensive than connecting an existing neighborhood.
At $50 a month for a gigabit connection (a gigabit is 1,000 megabits per second, 40 times faster than the federal broadband standard), Hillsboro’s service would be on par with prices Comcast and Frontier Communications offer for service less than 10 percent as fast.
“The community is best served by expanded access and options,” said Hillsboro City Council member Anthony Martin.
— Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; 503-294-7699