High speed internet can be expensive. Do towns in Western Massachusetts hold the secret to sustainable, affordable connectivity? – The Boston Globe

So, in 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved the town borrowing $3.6 million to install a fiber optic cable network that would be owned by residents themselves rather than a private company. With its completion in 2015 came internet speeds that outperform many homes in Boston, for $72.40 a month.

“It brought us into the mainstream,” said Ewing. “The internet is so vital to people’s lives that once we had good internet, it felt like a life-changing event.”

With larger providers having little economic incentive to upgrade internet infrastructure, some Western Massachusetts towns created their own municipal broadband networks, treating high speed internet as a public utility. That set the standard for broadband availability and pricing in their own communities, amid fears of becoming outdated in an ever-expanding digital economy and frustration with investor-owned internet providers.

The benefits are myriad: banking is more convenient; people can work from home and have doctors’ appointments online; government services, educational material, and information all become more accessible.

And yet, experts say replicating the municipal-owned model — especially in the state’s larger cities — would be difficult. Upfront costs are steep, and it requires communities to take financial responsibility for long-term maintenance. Further, larger providers that municipal networks would compete with could delay the installation of necessary infrastructure because they own the utility poles that fiber optic cables would run along. Such hurdles are sometimes enough to kill the idea in its infancy.

Former Leverett Select Board member Peter d’Errico showed off broadband equipment inside the town’s ‘Point Of-Presence’ building in 2015.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“We have a broken market [where] the cable and telecom monopolies have a stranglehold,” said digital equity advocate Sean Goncalves.

More than 10 percent of Massachusetts residents experience high barriers to broadband access, according to a digital equity report published by the quasipublic Massachusetts Broadband Institute, or MBI. The majority of them, about 592,000 people, live in urban environments, while roughly 231,000 live in rural areas.

The most common barrier, the report says, is pricing.

In Massachusetts, the largest providers charge varying prices for internet speed that’s one gigabyte per second, the level most municipal networks provide. Verizon Fios charges $90 a month, Xfinity up to $85, and Spectrum $90.

However, only 7 percent of the state has access to gigabit speeds, which allow multiple users to simultaneously stream, game, and download large files. T-Mobile, Massachusetts’ most widely available provider at nearly 93 percent coverage, tops out at just a fourth of the speed of most municipal broadband networks.

The municipal-owned networks that have managed to pop up in the last decade have been built on the state’s own investment in expanding high speed internet infrastructure out to Central and Western Massachusetts.

Perhaps the most prominent municipal broadband success story in the state is Westfield. In 2015, the city’s municipal utility company, Westfield Gas and Electric, built a fiber network and created a subsidiary, Whip City Fiber, to offer internet service.

Since then, Whip City Fiber has expanded into more than 20 communities in Western Massachusetts with 17,000 customers. The towns own the networks while Whip City Fiber maintains the infrastructure and performs daily operations — the costs of which are paid by subscribers’ monthly payments.

Whip City Fiber prices haven’t increased since it began service, according to company general manager Tom Flaherty. In Westfield, for example, customers pay $70 a month.

Flaherty said they’re able to keep monthly rates low, avoid tiered service, and offer more responsive customer service because they aren’t trying to maximize returns for investors like large corporations. Instead, the revenues generated in the towns they service are reinvested there to cover maintenance costs. (Whip City Fiber recently committed $15 million over the next 15 years to help install a track and turf field at Westfield High School.)

Colrain, a town near the Vermont border, completed its broadband network in 2015 and has seen tangible economic effects. For instance, one of the town’s largest employers, Pine Hill Orchards, is now able to process credit cards, EBT, and issue electronic gift cards because of high speed internet.

“It’s just changed the whole way that everyone lives and does business and it’s so much cheaper,” said Mike Slowinski, who manages Colrain’s broadband network. “You [install the network] once. It’s there. It’s 24/7. It’s fast. It’s reliable. Everything that we didn’t have before.”

But the municipal broadband model isn’t as practical in more densely populated parts of the state.

The larger, entrenched internet providers in cities are usually the only companies rich enough to match the unique demands of large populations, like providing internet to multifamily dwellings. And because there are so many providers in urban areas, Flaherty said, prices tend to be lower as companies compete for market share, making it difficult for the municipal model to compete.

In Boston, for example, an MBI survey found the average lowest price for broadband is $42 a month, while in the Connecticut River Valley it’s $72. The most expensive, the survey found, was on Cape Cod and the surrounding islands at $79.50.

The big providers offer cheap basic plans for as low as $10 a month in some places. However, the internet speeds associated with these plans are paltry in comparison to municipal fiber networks, especially for households with multiple high bandwidth users on the connection at once.

A federal pandemic-era program called the Affordable Connectivity Plan, or ACP, helped with affordability. The program gave millions of low-income families across the country — and roughly 370,000 people in Massachusetts — a $360 discount with certain providers over the course of a year. But it is winding down as pandemic relief funds continue to run out.

A new plan to continue funding the program has been hatched in the Senate, but has yet to be taken up for a vote.

Since its creation in 2021, the ACP has served as “a necessary Band Aid,” said Goncalves, one that helped the people most in need get online at a reasonable cost. But it never dealt with “the root cause of why is internet service so expensive in the first place,” he said.

MBI has its own programs meant to address affordability throughout the state: It offers personal cellular hotspots for families with unstable housing, has a program for free WiFi in public housing, and has started upgrading wiring in subsidized housing complexes to allow for higher internet speeds.

MBI also partners with community based organizations throughout the state, institute director Michael Baldino said, to provide free devices and digital literacy classes to underserved communities.

For example, MakeIT Haverhill, a workforce development nonprofit, teaches basic computer skills to people in Haverhill’s Mount Washington neighborhood, a mostly low-income, immigrant community.

Taïna Mathurin Janvier — a Haitian migrant who moved to Haverhill in 2022 — has used the program to further her goal of working as an interpreter. So far, Mathurin Janvier has learned how to write a resume and cover letter in MakeIT Haverhill’s digital literacy programming, vital skills to have, she said “as the world is moving [forward] on technology. It is an obligation.”

Still, other communities outside of Western Massachusetts have also started to experiment with alternatives to the traditional privatized internet model.

On the Cape, where connectivity is similarly spotty, a nonprofit called OpenCape has built an open source broadband network, which it operates and maintains. Instead of large providers owning the infrastructure, they lease their access from the nonprofit. It keeps the providers in the town, but allows a third-party to ensure necessary upgrades happen.

Last year, a group of about two dozen cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth with similar concerns about internet service providers called the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition was formed. Some coalition communities have expressed interest in potentially working together to build their own shared, open access network.

Proponents of municipal broadband networks see their model as the gift that keeps on giving. The fiber optic cables offer the capacity for even higher internet speeds as hardware advances while networks theoretically get cheaper to run as the bonds used to fund them are paid off over time.

For Ewing of Leverett, the network is also a point of pride.

“It was one of our best moments as a community,” he said. “The big companies wouldn’t serve us and so we figured out how to do it ourselves.”

This story was produced by the Globe’s Money, Power, Inequality team, which covers the racial wealth gap in Greater Boston. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Julian E.J. Sorapuru is a Development Fellow at the Globe and can be reached at julian.sorapuru@globe.com. Follow him @JulianSorapuru

var oneTrustActive = true;
var oneTrustConsentObj;

try {
oneTrustConsentObj = JSON.parse(window.localStorage.getItem(‘consent_one_trust_bgmp’) || ‘{}’);
} catch (err) {
oneTrustConsentObj = {};

// Default to granted consent
var consent=”grant”

// FB script decleration
!function(f,b,e,v,n,t,s) {
(window,document,’script’, ‘https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js’);

if (oneTrustActive && oneTrustConsentObj && oneTrustConsentObj.C0004 === false) {

// We need to call consent before we run init and track
fbq(‘consent’, consent);
fbq(‘set’, ‘autoConfig’, ‘false’, ‘884869448226452’);
fbq(‘set’, ‘autoConfig’, ‘false’, ‘493062270895851’);
fbq(‘init’, ‘884869448226452’);
fbq(‘track’, ‘PageView’);

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *