Study details Northampton’s internet needs

  • Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/1/2021 7:40:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Voters in Tuesday’s election will be asked to answer Question 1, which if passed would allow the city to continue its pursuit of a municipal broadband internet system.

Last week, the city released a marketing study detailing the internet needs of residents and businesses, and Mayor David Narkewicz led a virtual public presentation of the findings.

The marketing study prepared by the consulting company Design Nine found that “affordable high speed Internet is essential to the future growth and prosperity of Northampton … and the COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that affordable high performance Internet access is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Question 1 is nonbinding and does not authorize any spending. Voters will be asked if they support the establishment of a Municipal Light Plant, which is a utility company that can offer internet service, not a building or physical structure.

“It’s crucial, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting Question 1 as part of this important project,” Narkewicz said during Wednesday’s virtual presentation, explaining that the ballot question is the latest in a series of city-level votes required by state law.

The Design Nine study found that Northampton has one of the state’s lowest internet connectivity rates, ranking 321 out of 351 cities and towns. About 94.6% of people in Northampton have access to wired broadband internet with speeds of 25 megabits per second or faster, compared to 99.9% in Easthampton and 100% in Springfield, according to BroadbandNow, an organization whose statistics are cited in the Design Nine study.

The town of Charlemont is working to build its own network through Whip City Fiber of Westfield.

“Gigabit fiber Internet service is expected to cost about $80/month with no data caps. Phone service is expected to cost $23/month, and Internet, phone, and several Over The Top (OTT) services like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube TV is expected to cost around $140/month, or about 15% to 20% less than Comcast service,” the study reads.

Meeting future needs

The study recommends preparing for the future by creating a system that can adapt to increasing demand for at least three decades; properly installed fiber has a lifespan of more than 40 years, the study reads.

“The Northampton of the future will be attractive to an emerging new group of business people and entrepreneurs that typically are well-educated, own their own businesses or work for large global corporations, and are making choices about where they lived based on family needs and interests, rather than business interests,” the study reads. “… Broadband is the enabler of this new approach to personal and work life.”

The pandemic has led to a surge in workers using their own at-home internet rather than going to an office, the study reads, meaning they need “high bandwidth services to be connected to the office network and to use corporate videoconferencing systems.”

Although most U.S. children have returned to in-person schools, many colleges and universities have made their online courses permanent. Online shopping and virtual doctor appointments have become “not just a convenience but a necessity for many Northampton residents,” according to the study.

Design Nine said it conducted a survey of Northampton residents and business owners in which 25% of eligible people responded; 82% of residents and 92% of businesses said they are at least somewhat likely to switch to a city-run network.

Of the businesses that responded, 37% said they need employees to be able to work from home, and 16% were home-based businesses. Just 33% of businesses said they are satisfied with their current service.

The network would be available to multiple internet service providers, or ISPs. Design Nine recommended that the city not serve as an ISP due to regulatory and legal hurdles, but rather provide the physical infrastructure that ISPs would use.

“In other communities that have done this … competition almost always provides lower prices and better service,” Andrew Cohill, Design Nine’s president and CEO, said during the virtual presentation. The system would promote net neutrality, he said, because every ISP would use the same system to deliver service.

Asked by a member of the public if the city can “require” that ISPs serve low-income people at a reduced rate, Cohill said answering that question “requires legal counsel.” He added that planners are working on “a variety of strategies to address the equity issue” and that “most municipal networks are extremely competitive on pricing.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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