A big step for Google Fiber in Portland

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Not quite two months ago here at BlueOregon, we kicked off a petition calling on the Portland City Council to “to work quickly to bring Google Fiber to the region.”

Yesterday, the City of Portland announced that it has reached a preliminary agreement with Google to bring Google Fiber – and internet speeds 100 times faster than your existing broadband – to Portland.

This would give Portland damn near the fastest public internet service in the United States (along with Kansas City and Provo, the other two Fiber towns). It would open new possibilities for web developers and tech entrepreneurs – not to mention just plain awesome internet for the rest of us.

It’s not quite a done deal yet. The agreement still needs to be finalized, including a number of key details that need hammering out. But this is a huge first step. It’s proof that the city is taking the possibility seriously and working hard to land the deal. (Unlike when the city rolled over and played dead when it came to bidding on the 2016 Democratic convention.)

What Google is offering is fairly compelling.

For starters, Google would provide basic broadband (not the 100x superfast stuff) at zero monthly cost. With a single one-time install fee (in Kansas City, it’s $300), people would get broadband for free for seven years. Comcast runs $40 to $50 a month. Let’s say 20,000 households (around 10% or so) take Google up on that offer – that would save Portlanders well over $8 million a year.

Google would also offer a free gigabit connection (that’s the superfast stuff) to qualified nonprofits. If just 600 nonprofits take ‘em up on that offer (around a quarter of those in town), allowing them to drop a $70/mo (or more) bill from Comcast, that’s at least another half a million bucks a year for Portlanders.

Remember when the City of Portland tried to build its own public citywide wireless network? Yeah, it was an idea before its time. But this draft agreement calls for Google to build and operate up to three outdoor public wi-fi zones. Imagine free wi-fi in Pioneer Courthouse Square or Waterfront Park. That would be a game-changer in downtown. (Better still if they threw up the wi-fi net over the entirety of downtown. Hey, a guy can dream, right?)

Of course, those are all just cherries on top. The big deal is building out the fiber network across the city and offering gigabit to compete with (and crush, haha) Comcast. In Kansas City, a smaller town than Portland, the project cost $84 million. A lot of that is materials, but a lot of that comes in the form of construction jobs. That’s a major investment, and one that will pay off for years to come.

And of course, Google is going to be paying a fee to the City of Portland – some 5% of its revenues from video. (Though to be fair, I’m not sure what exactly that entails – YouTube ad revenue? Google Play? Ads on a cable TV replacement service?)

Now, as some have pointed out previously, it’s true that Google is a big corporation – and they’re surely doing this because it’s going to be a boon to their bottom line. For sure. But right now, we’re largely stuck with a choice between Comcast’s lousy service and CenturyLink’s even lousier service. More competition will mean better service, better product, and better pricing – even for those who decide to stick with the old-school services.

We activists will, of course, have to keep our eye on this project as it rolls out. When the project got underway in Kansas City, Google originally planned to hook up Fiber in neighborhoods that expressed an interest – by signing up for the service. Unfortunately, the breakdown tended to happen along the existing “digital divide”, with low-income and minority communities left behind. To their credit, Google moved quickly to add promotional efforts in those communities, and things began to shift in the right direction. And they’ve clearly learned lessons that will be applied in Portland. But we’ll need to be vigilant.

But all in all, I’m excited about this. It’s going to be great to have competition in our broadband internet service market – and more importantly, getting gigabit internet service here early will mean that Portland will be uniquely positioned to incubate start-up businesses that will be ready for the gigabit future that’s coming everywhere in the next decade or two.

Here’s hoping that Google and the City of Portland can get to “yes” on this deal.

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