The communications company cites growing demand, a commitment to underserved communities, and public assistance programs as reasons for the expansion.
In 2023, residents of Silverton living inside city limits will have access to Comcast’s broadband internet service, the company announced last month.
The expansion, which will cost the company $10.6 million in upfront investment, is the latest in a string of company projects laying fiber into underserved Oregon cities. The move comes at a time when public financial support for broadband installations, as well as demand for high speed internet in rural Oregon, is at an all-time high.
Comcast has invested more than half a billion dollars in Oregon over the last three years, according to the company's press release. The Silverton expansion follows two Comcast Oregon expansions last year into Woodburn and Hubbard.
David Tashjian, regional senior vice president of Comcast Oregon and southwest Washington, says the expansion follows a company commitment to ensuring Oregonians in remote areas have internet service. That commitment predates a recent spate of federal initiatives to expand access to broadband infrastructure.
“We had a commitment to service people in the underserved population prior to the current broadband-a-palooza going on in Washington. We started the Woodburn journey two and a half years ago,” he adds, referring to a $15 million project announced last July to bring broadband to the communities of Hubbard and Woodburn, “and now we’re starting to show the fruits of that labor.”
Tashjian also described the expansion as strategic.
The State of Oregon already has assistance programs to help residents become broadband customers, including the Oregon Telephone Assistance Program, which offers free or discounted broadband to qualifying low-income households.
Furthermore, hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into Oregon broadband projects from the American Rescue Plan Act and the The Broadband Equity, Access & Deployment Program (BEAD). Tashjian described the influx of federal investment as a “big game changer” for telecommunications companies in the state.
The company estimates 5,000 of Silverton’s 10,000 residents will have access to the Comcast Xfinity suite, due to the company’s city limit boundary. Amy Keiter, director of external communications for Comcast Oregon and Southwest Washington, says that other areas of the city are under consideration for broadband infrastructure, but there are no concrete plans to continue the expansion at this time.
“There are areas outside the city limit that are being evaluated to be included in our service area, but we don’t know what those are yet. They have to be approved and there’s a financial component to that. What we know right now is that we are providing service passing to every home and business within city limits.”
Spending the resources to run fiber to reach more remote areas including single-family farms can be difficult for companies to justify financially. In addition to fewer public utilities terrain requirements such as drilling through rock formations, the relatively low population densities of more remote areas makes such projects hard to pencil out without additional financing.
Jessica Epley, vice president of regulatory and external affairs at Ziply Fiber, a two-year-old telecommunications company and Comcast competitor based in Kirland, Wa., says federal programs combined with Oregon’s existing broadband assistance programs makes the state a lucrative place for internet service providers to do business.
“Of all the places I’ve worked to set up broadband, I think Oregon does it the best. Affordability of broadband is at an all-time high with the Federal Lifeline Program and Oregon Telephone Assistance Program, and you qualify for those programs for free,” says Epley. “We want to push our network out as far as we possibly can during this time.”
Ziply will not be the only business competing with Comcast for RFP contracts, due to the hundreds of millions of federal spending currency allocated to broadband access.
“I think the funding offers a tremendous opportunity. There will be many players vying for those dollars but we are working closely with the state broadband office,” says Tashjian, who adds that Comcast’s reputation as a company committed to improving Oregon cities will be important as localities decide how to spend new broadband access funds.
“When cities see companies investing with their own money, it builds trust when selecting for the future. We want communities to know we are investing in their future ourselves,” Tashjian says.
Tashjian says the company is looking at the funds as an opportunity to partner with and expand to areas with growth potential. Tashjian says that the company is currently “in active negotiations” with dozens of cities for public-private partnerships to get broadband into places that are price prohibitive.
“There’s not a ton of population growth in Eugene and Corvallis. Woodburn is a great example of continued growth. They have data centers coming in,” says Tashjian. “We’re also exploring expansions into additional communities adjacent to our footprint.”
One of the barriers to expanding broadband infrastructure to remote areas is cost. Since there are fewer people to serve in small towns, providers must often charge more for broadband access in underserved areas. But Tashjian says Comcast is committed to offering rural Oregonians broadband at the same price point as Portland Metro dwellers.
Tashjian would not say exactly how many years the company estimates before the Silverton project recoups its investment, but he claimed it would be a “single-digit number of years” with moderate growth rates assumptions.
Construction of the Silverton project is scheduled to begin this spring and to wrap in 2023.
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