Northampton eyes municipal broadband network

  • Northampton city hall File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/22/2019 11:39:59 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council approved funding for a two-part feasibility study on building a municipal broadband network on first reading Thursday, to the cheer of municipal broadband advocates.

“The mayor’s announcement says to us that he’s on board,” said Lee Feldscher, of the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition. “That he’s interested and engaged and wants to find a way to make it work.”

The coalition is a group of residents and businesses interested in the establishment of a municipal fiber network in Northampton. The funding is included in the Fiscal Year 2020 to 2024 Capital Improvement Program, which was adopted as a resolution by the Council.

Municipal broadband offers high-speed internet through a community-owned utility. It has already come to Leverett, is being built out in Westfield is moving forward in South Hadley. Easthampton is also exploring municipal broadband.

Mayor David Narkewicz said that the first part of the study will survey city residents to gauge the appetite in Northampton for municipal broadband.

“Basically figure out, ‘Is there a market for this in Northampton?’” said Narkewicz.

The second part would be a full-on feasibility study, Narkewicz said, to determine just what would be required to create a municipal broadband network.

The first part of the study is set for 2020 and is estimated to cost $30,000; the second part is set for 2021 and estimated to cost $40,000.

Narkewicz and Antonio Pagán, the city’s chief information officer, said that municipal broadband was studied in 2016. Pagán and Narkewicz visited Westfield recently to learn about the municipal broadband network there.

At Thursday’s meeting, a number of members of the public spoke out in favor of municipal broadband.

“We don’t want to be the last Western Mass town to have the benefits of a high-speed municipally controlled network,” said Feldscher.

Feldscher said that Comcast’s monopoly on high-speed internet in Northampton is a problem, and said a lack of competition was why the United States has lagged behind much of the rest of the world in internet speed.

Feldscher and Mark Hamil, who is also a part of the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition, said they’ve received hundreds of signatures in support of municipal broadband, and strong support from the business community.

Feldscher presented the signatures to the mayor at the meeting.

“The unanimous response we received from people was, “Sure, I hate Comcast, where can I sign?” Feldscher said.

At the meeting, resident Joshua Yearsley cited the repeal of regulations that prevented internet service providers from collecting the sensitive information of users.

“We need to protect against federal action and multinational corporation action against surveilla

nce of all of us,” Yearsley said. “We are all being surveilled by our internet service providers. An effective way to counteract that is to explore municipal broadband.”

Narkewicz noted the enthusiasm that municipal broadband is generating in the city. However, he also said that Northampton’s situation is different from the communities that have pursued it. Leverett had no broadband internet whatsoever, while both South Hadley and Westfield have municipal light companies in place. He also said that changing technology is a concern to him as well.

The study is one of 116 projects in the five-year capital improvement program, all of which are estimated to cost $87,023,150.

The council’s approval of the program doesn’t authorize the spending for the projects but gives the council’s blessing for the plan’s contents. Funding for the projects will be approved or rejected as they are brought forward to the council through ordinances.

The resolution will be voted on on second reading at the council’s March 7 meeting.

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