WELCOME TO THE 21ST CENTURY, PORTLAND! Sorry our internet sucks.
It shouldn't suck this much. Considering that it was California where the internet took its first, slow steps, America could have been the first to provide its citizens with what's increasingly considered a fundamental right: fast, cheap access to the internet.
Instead, we have the opposite. Americans' expensive internet connections are slower than those in the Czech Republic. Slower than those in Hong Kong, Japan, Latvia, and the Netherlands. Slower than South Korea, Sweden, and Switzerland. The global economy has become ruthlessly competitive; if our internet stays the way it is, we'll soon be left behind.
But there's hope, at least for our city.
Last month, Portland—along with eight other metropolitan areas, including Atlanta, Raleigh, and San Jose—won a coveted spot on a shortlist of cities, all of which might get Google Fiber. If Google deigns to bestow its blisteringly fast fiber-optic network upon Portland and its suburbs, we could have faster speeds, more provider choices, and cheaper bills in just a few years. A network like Google's wouldn't just let Portland keep up with the rest of the world—it would also, for a while, give us a much-needed advantage.
In theory, an improved internet infrastructure would help Portland in countless ways: streamlining education, both on campuses and in homes. Supercharging job growth, particularly in the tech sector. Enabling more telecommuting and reducing pollution. Revolutionizing health care. Finally eliminating all lag from cheapadultwebcam.com!
It's an exciting proposition. Because if Google Fiber comes to Portland—and if we can avoid some of the pitfalls seen elsewhere—our internet won't suck anymore.
For most of us, that is.
THE BENEFITS OF FIBER
It's tempting to think of the internet as the "cloud"—an ethereal, intangible thing that magically binds together everyone we know, along with our messages, memories, books, pictures, movies, and pirated episodes of True Detective. But the real internet is a lot less futuristic. The real internet is wires and pipes and tubes.
"I have confirmed with my own eyes that the internet is many things, in many places," pop-science writer Andrew Blum says in the prologue to Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. "But one thing it most certainly is, nearly everywhere, is, in fact, a series of tubes. There are tubes beneath the ocean that connect London and New York. Tubes that connect Google and Facebook. There are buildings filled with tubes, and hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and railroad tracks, beside which lie buried tubes. Everything you do online travels through a tube. Inside those tubes (by and large) are glass fibers. Inside those fibers is light. Encoded in that light, is, increasingly, us."
Those glass fibers are the core of fiber-optic cables, and the lasers that course through the glass move data at nearly the speed of light. With fiber, data can be uploaded and downloaded at one gigabit per second. That's 100 times faster than Portland's typical broadband. Page loads and video streaming would be instantaneous; downloading an HD movie would take less than one minute. And the potential for new high-speed applications is all but unlimited.
A good amount of the tubes used by internet providers are already filled with fiber; it's where the fiber stops, usually right before your door, that the data within slows to a crawl. What Google Fiber and similar networks do is string that fiber directly into homes.
But before fiber can reach your house, new infrastructure must be created: a ring of fiber that encompasses the whole city. Once that's in place, the fiber is pulled from the ring into the city and collected in routing "huts." Then it's strung into telecom cabinets, those freestanding metal boxes scattered throughout the city, the contents of which you've probably never stopped to consider. From the telecom cabinets, fiber is buried or bundled along existing utility lines—until, finally, it's strung into individual homes.
It's an ambitious and expensive undertaking—the Portland Office for Community Technology estimates Google's expense for outfitting Portland will be $300 million—which explains why no other company has stepped up. Not that they haven't thought of it. In 2011, Portland officials making strategic plans for broadband improvements received little support from Portland's biggest internet providers.
Asked to comment on Portland's strategic planning, both Comcast and CenturyLink questioned the city's goal of fiber-to-the-home connections, suggesting the market wouldn't support it.
CenturyLink uses fiber right up until it gets to neighborhoods, then switches to cheaper, slower copper wiring to connect to houses. Why add a bunch of new fiber, CenturyLink wrote in a letter, when Portland has a perfectly good "existing copper distribution network"?
That same letter actually answered the question.
Because the best download speed CenturyLink could theoretically muster in 2011 was 100 megabits per second—a 10th of what Google Fiber promises.
Our internet didn't need to suck. But thanks to shortsighted deregulation—and the Federal Communications Commission's slow-witted refusal to recognize the internet as a public utility—corporations have been allowed to determine the speed and cost of internet in the US.
Those corporations have done so based on what's most profitable. In the case of America's largest internet provider, Comcast, that means a 95 percent profit margin on their sluggish service. (Good luck not getting angry about that the next time you pay your bill.)
"They're not expanding and they're not enhancing their service," Susan Crawford, former technology policy assistant to President Barack Obama and the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, said last year in an interview with Time. "They've done their investment, now they're just harvesting. Shareholders are doing well. The rest of the country, not so great."
We could be doing great. Ironically, a tech giant like Google stomping into town could actually make Portland's internet less Orwellian. Fiber would deal a huge blow to the monopolistic Comcast—who, along with Portland's other internet providers, would likely have to lower prices and ramp up speeds in order to compete.
That would hardly be the end of the city's benefits, according to a report prepared last month by the Portland Office for Community Technology.
"The Case for Fiber in Portland: The Benefits Gigabit Networking Offers the Community" begins by noting that "fiber—like access to roads and waterways—is a key tool for economic development," then lays out 31 pages of "substantial educational, environmental, and health benefits."
The perks tagged by the report are wide ranging and maybe even fanciful: a prediction for "a significant number of construction and operations jobs," an influx "of new population and workers, particularly in high-tech, bandwidth-intensive fields," a better framework to allow more people to telecommute and "support workforce participation for seniors and the disabled," and vastly expanded applications for education and telehealth.
The report is a starry-eyed, rosy-cheeked prophet of good things to come—provided we have fiber linking every home.
If only it were that simple.
NOT SO FAST
Here's the bad news: Even if Portland gets the nod from Google, fiber still might not be a reality for a lot of Portlanders.
If Google throws its fiber lasso around the Portland metro area, neighborhoods must express sufficient interest in order to get connected. In other cities where Google has been installing fiber, at least five to 10 percent of households in each designated "fiberhood" had to sign up.
And that doesn't count apartments: Unless apartment owners are willing to pay connection fees for each of their units, only single-family homes will be allowed to mainline the sweet digital rush Google is peddling.
For some of Portland's households and neighborhoods, committing to gigabit service will be prohibitively expensive—and deepen the city's long-lamented digital divide, in which lower-income residents don't have the same access to the internet as well-off residents.
Based on subscription rates in other cities ($70 a month for internet, $120 a month for internet and cable TV), Google's gigabit service in Portland would cost about the same as Comcast's far-slower offerings. But unlike Comcast, Google also offers a "free" service. Customers pay only an installation fee, and they get free internet for at least seven years, with speeds comparable to basic broadband.
That installation fee varies—Google charges $300 in Kansas City, but only $30 in Provo, Utah, where it saved money by purchasing an existing fiber network. Google hasn't said what it will charge in Austin, Texas, or in any of the new cities it's considering, including Portland. (If pricing follows other Fiber cities, the installation fee can be spread out over 12 months.)
There's also this curious fact: Despite all the buzzing in Portland City Hall about Google Fiber spurring economic development, no established businesses will be allowed to tap into this first wave of fiber. Home-based enterprises and startups are more than welcome. But Google says it's still working on a service for traditional small businesses. It also says businesses are more likely than homes to have high-speed internet already.
(Google's also begun a program to connect public institutions like schools and government buildings to its fiber network. That would be a bigger deal here, except Portland already has a publicly owned fiber network that links schools, courthouses, government offices, and libraries.)
Dana Haynes, Mayor Charlie Hales' spokesman, said Hales was aware that businesses would be exempt when he and some hand-selected tech execs offered soaring rhetoric in February about how fiber will make Portland's businesses more competitive.
"If you're talking about trying to encourage businesses to move here," Haynes explains, "fiber to the home is one of those things they'll think about. Absolutely. That's pro-business."
SECOND TIME'S THE CHARM
Portland's been here before. Sort of.
Back in 2010, city staffers spent months perfecting a colorful—albeit extremely technical—argument for why Portland, and no one else, deserved to be Google's first fiber guinea pig. The whole thing got so perfectly "Portland" that Hopworks Urban Brewery was even brought in to craft a "Gigabit IPA."
Google chose Kansas City instead. Dusty, unopened bottles of Gigabit IPA can still be found in city hall.
The beer was mentioned on February 19, when Hales announced Google's renewed interest. But the truth is, Google came back for more meaningful reasons.
For one thing, Portland refused to take no for an answer. Mary Beth Henry, the city's telecom czar, never missed a chance to prod the company at conferences and events over the past few years.
Just as importantly, the city kept pushing to craft a nationally noted plan for broadband that put in writing its firm devotion to home-strung fiber. Work on the plan began under Commissioner Amanda Fritz's office and finished under Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
"It definitely played a part in this," Brendan Finn, Saltzman's chief of staff, said of the plan.
This time the work will be spread across the region.
Portland's been tapped alongside Gresham, Beaverton, Lake Oswego, Tigard, and Hillsboro. Henry says discussions in Portland about "potential mutual development interests" with Google started "last summer."
But word about this new fiber flirtation didn't spread regionally until Google—with nondisclosure agreements in hand—came calling two or three months ago, says Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle. "Then they got serious a month ago and went ahead and did their thing."
That "thing"—Google's announcement—was the starting gun for a frantic government race. Google has given the nine metro areas on its list just 10 weeks—until May 1—to turn over reams of infrastructure data that Google will use to make an expansion decision by the end of the year: Which power lines are underground? Where are your power poles? Have fiber conduits already been laid? Are they accessible? What about sewer lines? Roadwork?
The answers to those questions, according to the planning documents Google is providing, might even influence whether the company adds municipal wifi.
Cities with fiber in place may be able to offer up some of that capacity, reducing costs and making their candidacy all the more attractive. Ditto for places with lots of accessible utility poles.
Haynes, Hales' spokesman, says that work has already started. Portland held an all-bureau meeting on Tuesday, February 25, and handed out a loooong to-do list. Beaverton Mayor Doyle says a regional work group will coordinate the same across the various cities.
Sources tell the Mercury that logistical discussions might conceivably spread to talk of incentives. But incentives are tricky: Google makes a point of noting that it's neither asked for, nor received, special treatment, and cities can't offer things like waivers or subsidies unless they also offer them to Google's competitors.
"Believe me, there will be people watching that carefully," Doyle says.
More likely? Cities will find a way to help lower-income property owners pay for the installation of fiber connections. That not only would help convince Google that the expense of constructing a network here is worthwhile—but it would also shrink the digital divide.
"That levels the playing field," says Doyle.
DATA OF FUTURE PAST
Portland has long had dreams of egalitarian internet access—back in 2006, the city paired with an ambitious Silicon Valley startup, MetroFi, and pledged that by 2008, 95 percent of the city would have free wifi.
But MetroFi's service, which relied on antennas installed throughout the city, suffered from pathetic performance. Faced with increasing money shortages, the plan was dead by 2007—and with it, Portland's hopes for free, equal-opportunity internet access.
While MetroFi tried—and failed—to get money from both the city and from Portlanders willing to buy "premium" subscriptions, Google's plan is more straightforward: Google makes money when people do things online, and gigabit internet means more people doing more things online. Thanks in large part to ads on Google's unavoidable suite of services—from google.com's search pages to Gmail, YouTube, Maps, and more—Google made $57.86 billion in 2013.
And given fiber's efficacy as a digital delivery system, it's worth noting that Google's been heading into selling digital content. Google Play, for example, offers TV, movies, music, books, magazines, and games. There's a reason why, when Fiber customers in Kansas City and Provo purchase the company's gigabit internet and TV package, Google throws in one of their Nexus 7 tablets: One more screen is one more way for people to buy content.
In addition to laying the groundwork to make money from ads and content, Google also claims to be kick starting the "future of the internet," laying down fiber so its own engineers won't feel "constrained" when dreaming up the company's next suite of projects.
A spokeswoman for Google, Jenna Wandres, compared the arrival of fiber to the transition between dial-up speeds and broadband, conjuring up a grim scene from the not-too-distant past: low-resolution pictures loading line by line.
"Look at the innovation that came from that jump," Wandres says.
Wandres also asserts that the fiber Google is providing will be "future proof." Even gigabit service, one day, will seem quaint and slow—but the tubes themselves will remain just as nimble.
"Once the network is in place, once you put the fiber strings in the ground," she says, "as technology develops you can change the equipment on the network to push higher speeds."
Welcoming in a giant company like Google is a far cry from the idealistic days of MetroFi. And long term, there's the possibility that Portlanders might trade one monopoly for another.
Other risks are on the horizon: Could Google's attractive "free" internet option disappear after seven years? What if Google decides to start playing favorites with the content it delivers? (When asked about the latter, Wandres replied, "We have no plans to.")
Some communities have avoided risks like these by installing fiber themselves. Despite panicked complaints and desperate lawsuits from phone and cable companies, Lafayette, Louisiana, installed its own fiber-to-the-home service. The results were impressive: "From 2007 to mid-2011, people living in Lafayette saved $5.7 million on telecommunications services," Susan Crawford wrote for Bloomberg View.
In the Columbia River Gorge, the Dalles did something similar. Sick of being ignored by telecoms, the town installed its own 17-mile fiber loop. Shortly after its completion in 2003, the $1.8 million loop reinvigorated that often-forgotten part of the Northwest: Google now has a data center in the Dalles, and set up free public wifi in the Dalles' downtown.
Portland also thought about building its own, significantly more expensive fiber network—and even considered entering the field as its own service provider... before deciding to entice others to build instead.
"We took that big, diving look into a municipal network," says Finn, Saltzman's chief of staff and a leading broadband policy voice in city hall. "It was too much risk for government to take."
WAITING FOR GIGABIT
None of this is perfect.
By now, in an ideal Portland, the city would already have a fiber network—one that functioned as a public utility rather than a commercial enterprise.
But given economic realities, a once-in-a-generation infrastructure enhancement like Google Fiber still marks a huge opportunity. If Google chooses us at the end of the year, Portland will have to ensure all of its residents will benefit. The promise of the internet, after all, is that it links together everyone—not just those who can afford it.
And if, for whatever reason, Google declines to bring fiber to Portland?
Then it'll be time for the city to figure out another way to make it happen. Before we get left behind.