Columnists Mark Hamill and Lee Feldscher: Northampton needs a community network


Published: 5/7/2018 9:18:56 PM

Since 2015, citizens of Leverett have enjoyed very high-speed (1-gigabit per second) fiber internet access. They pay $73.89 a month for the access through their own community network, LeverettNet.

In serviced areas of Westfield (with more areas to come) citizens pay $69.95 per month for a similar service from their Whip City Fiber network. Greenfield and Holyoke (through Holyoke Gas & Electric) also provide community networks.

Community networks are also being built in the Hilltowns. Easthampton citizens are also petitioning for a community network, in spite of Charter Communications’ presence.

We believe that Northampton needs a community network, too. There are many reasons for this, some pragmatic and some philosophical. Among our pragmatic reasons: community networks tend to be faster, more reliable and less expensive.

It’s hard to compare Comcast’s internet pricing with Leverett’s, since Comcast customers frequently bundle cable TV and phone service into their bills. Comcast does offer an internet-only service with speeds up to 60-megabits per second for $74.95 a month, after initial discounts. LeverettNet customers pay a bit less per month for a service that offers 17-times faster downloading and at least 50-times faster uploading.

Among our philosophical reasons: towns and cities with community networks tend to have increased property values compared with communities without them. Comcast sees its customers as profit centers. As such, customers have no say in the quality or pricing of their services (especially because they lack competition). A community network would be accountable to its citizens. The city of Northampton’s government has no say over Comcast’s internet services or pricing.

A Northampton community network should be net-neutral. While Comcast has publicly stated it has no plans to end its net neutrality, it could at any time. It spent a lot of time and money pushing the Federal Communications Commission to roll back net neutrality, now approved. It could create different bundled options, just as it has done in television delivery (a model that has proven very lucrative for Comcast). We believe Northampton deserves a truly open, net-neutral internet, forever.

For several months now we have been researching what it would take to create a community network in Northampton. The city has already studied the issue tangentially in a 2016 report. It would require creating a “municipal light plant.” This would require two votes by our City Council in two separate municipal years. Each vote would require at least a two-thirds vote in favor. Afterward, city voters would need to approve the initiative in a ballot referendum.

Comcast has fought many similar efforts nationwide in the past, sometimes by lowering prices. A community network would not replace Comcast’s internet service but simply compete with it. While Comcast would remain as the city’s cable TV provider, residents on the community network could stream similar content. Citizens though would have choice — choice that is largely absent at the moment.

In our outreach, we have spoken to a number of Northampton groups. Suzanne Beck, the executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, is a supporter. Also on board is Al Williams, director of Northampton Community TV (NCTV).

We also have communicated with various vendors that are providing these services. We have toured Whip City Fiber network to learn what worked and what didn’t work as they rolled out service in Westfield (which is currently serviced by Comcast as well). We’ve learned that these technologies are proven and standardized.

Moreover, the cost of commercial bandwidth continues to decrease. When failures occur, they are usually managerial, not technical. Most community networks are paid for by a municipal bond, which is paid off by subscribers over many years. The city typically provides seed money to study its viability, the costs and to develop a plan. Based on input we’ve received, a gigabit fiber network should cost between $10 million and $15 million.

We have created the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition. Our next meeting is at 7 p.m. June 7 at NCTV (at the back of Northampton High School). All are welcome at our meetings.

More about our initiative is available on our website, and we invite you to join our mailing list if you are interested in getting involved or staying engaged.

Mark Hamill and Lee Feldscher, both of Florence, are founding members of the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition.

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