Leverett, Obama on same page with high-speed Internet

Last modified: Friday, February 06, 2015

LEVERETT — President Obama’s call Tuesday for Internet expansion to “help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” had a special ring for people in this town.

Obama’s State of the Union shout-out to the 21st-century businesses’ need for “the fastest Internet,” and his visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa, last week to spotlight that city’s municipal gigabit-per-second broadband service, came as little surprise to Leverett Broadband Committee members, who are gearing up for 1-gigabit-per-second LeverettNet service — 100 times faster than the national average — to be turned on this spring for residents.

Leverett is one of six communities featured in a White House report this month, “Community-Based Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and Highspeed Internet Access.”

“Leverett,” says the report, which also documents efforts by the state to build its 1,200-mile, middle-mile network, “saw the opportunity to build its own broadband system. In 2012, Leverett voters approved a modest property tax increase and a $3.6 million bond to fund the network. Leverett created a publicly controlled Municipal Light Plant (MLP) entity to own and operate its network, named LeverettNet. The town is in the process of building the network — which will provide 1-gigabit service — and connecting it to all 630 households in the community.”

That service was supposed to be up and running by Jan. 1, but because of delays in preparation work on utility poles by Verizon and Western Massachusetts Electric Co. so that Millennium Communications could begin construction, the system is now scheduled to begin operation at the end of March. Because of the delay in getting some underground connections to people’s houses, the network won’t be fully functional until the end of June, but the Internet service provider will be locally owned Crocker Communications, with the system operator municipally owned Holyoke Gas and Electric.

Leverett Broadband Committee member Richard Natthorst said, “Massachusetts has this wonderful law allows for municipalities to set up municipal light and power utilities, and that’s been expanded to include telephone and broadband service. We’re very lucky as a state that this practice is allowed, and we think it’s the right way to go.”

Obama has asked for the Federal Communications Commission to override state laws that prevent communities from providing high-speed Internet and called on it to regulate the Internet as a public utility.

On Thursday, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, filed legislation that would ban state laws and rules that prevent local governments from creating their own broadband networks and ensure that regulators can’t discriminate against competing private Internet service providers.

Meanwhile, the president is also promoting a Commerce Department effort to help communities build broadband infrastructure and an Agriculture Department program of loans and grants to build out Internet in rural areas. According to White House officials, Obama has also called for creation of an interagency council to speed up deployment of broadband. And a White House meeting is planned for June to discuss high-speed deployment with municipal leaders.

“(The president is) talking about exactly what Leverett is doing,” Natthorst said. “Leverett basically determined that the only way we were going to get broadband was to build it ourselves.”

Government involvement in broadband building was criticized by the industry, including John Sununu, a former U.S. senator from New Hampshire and now the honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, a coalition of groups that “... promotes well-informed public policy choices to create the right incentives for the private sector to build advanced networks ....” Sununu said, “The private sector is much better at deploying capital efficiently than the government.”

“That certainly doesn’t ring true for Leverett, or for virtually all of western Massachusetts,” Nathhorst said in response. “The marketplace flat-out refused to serve Leverett. Both Comcast and Verizon said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. It’s not profitable enough for us to bother with you people.’”

Noting that 19 states have enacted legislation promoted by the conservative American Legislative Council (ALEC) banning the kind of municipal broadband initiatives being pursued by Leverett, Greenfield, Princeton and Alford, Natthorst added, “We’re in complete support of what the president was talking about,” and that some member of his committee were involved in a White House conference call on the initiative. For the cost of a $3.6 million bond approved by the town’s voters, to be repaid over 20 years, plus a monthly cost under $100 for Internet and phone service, “this is going to be one of the cheapest-cost gigabit services in the country.”

In anticipation of LeverettNet’s startup, there are already real-estate ads for homes touting, “Broadband coming soon,” and there are anecdotal stories of home sales aided in town by the promise of the new fiber service, according to Select Board member Peter d’Errico.

“It’s parallel to the electrification of the country about 100 years ago,” d’Errico said. “We’re talking about infrastructure that’s basic to contemporary life. Without, it we’re not going to be able to do what people need to do to work, to study, to carry on with their daily lives. Initially, electricity was exotic.”

D’Errico emphasized, “This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a quality of life issue,” with older residents who own accessory apartments saying it will make a real difference in their being able to remain in their homes by renting to university students and faculty.

He called it “a specious argument” that providing high-speed service to cities and towns should be exclusively the domain of private business.

“Nuclear power wouldn’t be happening without (government) subsidies either. Defense industries, also. Private companies aren’t doing this on their own. If we’re talking about jobs and economic development, broadband’s kind of a no-brainer. To have opposition to it is just part of the gridlock we’ve seen.”


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