Easthampton council hears pitch for municipal broadband

  • Carlos Rodriguez and Victoriano Estrada connect two orange plastic conduits that will carry fiber optic cable along Industrial Blvd in the Airport Industrial Park in Montague in March 2013. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2019 11:28:51 PM

EASTHAMPTON — High prices for poor internet service led city councilors to form a committee last year dedicated to exploring the possibility of the city providing fast and reliable internet to residents and businesses.

At Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, the chairman of the telecommunications advisory committee, Greg Howe, presented a path forward for the city to consider studying the viability of bringing fiber-optic internet to Easthampton.

“We looked at a lot of technologies and fiber stands out,” Howe said, adding that fiber-optic cables can reach download speeds of up to 300 gigabits per second.

Fiber-optic cables “send data through tiny, incredibly pure strands of insulated glass at the speed of light,” according to a memorandum submitted by Howe to the council.

In May 2018, the city council established the telecommunications committee to study what steps the city would have to take to provide the “fastest, most affordable, and fairest possible” internet for residents, according to Howe.

Councilor Thomas Peake, who introduced legislation to form the telecommunications committee, said there is a “natural monopoly” in Easthampton, where Charter Communications — known as Spectrum — is the only internet service provider.

Since there is no real incentive for competing companies to set up their own infrastructure for internet services in Easthampton, Peake said the city is exploring the possibility of a municipal fiber-optic network.

“As we become a more connected society, we are going to have to contend with the emerging reality that connectivity and access to the internet are no longer a luxury — they are a driver of economic development,” Peake said.

High-speed internet would attract businesses and residents who work from home, but it would require the city to make infrastructure improvements, Peake said.

Creating a municipal light plant would not cost the city any money, Howe said, but creating one is required in order for the city to build the infrastructure that would be needed for poles and a fiber-optic cable network. A municipal light plant allows for cities to provide utilities such as gas, electricity or internet, but Peake said that Easthampton is only exploring internet services at the moment. 

For the city to establish a municipal light plant, the City Council would have to vote for the project in two separate fiscal years with a two-thirds majority. Then, if approved both times, the decision must be ratified by voters in an election.

The telecommunications committee is recommending to the City Council that it take a vote this spring, and a second vote at the beginning of next fiscal year, which is July, and put the matter before voters in November.

The telecommunications committee is asking for the council to help with developing cost estimates for creating a fiber-optic network across the city. Based on conversations with Whip City Fiber, which provides high-speed internet in Westfield, it could cost $10 million to $12 million.

This would include startup costs, a communications center with servers, routers, and switches, as well as the cost of running fiber-optic cable throughout the city and hooking up to homes and businesses.

The telecommunications committee reviewed the city’s contract with Charter, which provides internet, to find whether there are any provisions prohibiting Easthampton from providing internet, and the committee found none, Howe said.

“If we are going to make this kind of investment, to us it seems like the safest,” Peake said. “You don’t get faster than light speed, and some fiber put up 30 to 40 years ago is still up.”

The City Council referred the proposal for creating a municipal light plant to the rules and government relations subcommittee for review. 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com

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