Municipal internet network in the works

Staff Writer
Published: 12/23/2018 10:13:19 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Construction is underway for a new municipal internet network in South Hadley, which will likely be available to customers in three to five years, according to the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD). 

Current estimates for establishing the network range from $8 to $11 million, said SHELD General Manager Sean Fitzgerald, with $8 million being the target cost.

The cost of residential service is currently estimated at about $75 per month, Fitzergald said.

By the end of January, SHELD plans to launch its FiberSonic website, which has been designed and is now in its final testing review stage.

Residents will be able to express interest in the municipal network on the FiberSonic website, and SHELD will then use this feedback to determine which areas of town are most interested in the service. Based on interest, as well as other factors, SHELD will select two “fiberhoods” consisting of 250 customers on average for initial construction.

South Hadley is not the only community moving toward local network providers; in Franklin County earlier this December, Charlemont rejected a $462,123 Comcast offer, not including interest, likely priming the town for a $1.4 million municipal network that was approved by town meeting voters in 2015, the Greenfield Recorder reported.

Keeping service, oversight, control and investment local serves as a significant draw toward municipal internet services, according to Fitzgerald. 

“Having a local company or a municipal entity is a big advantage because we know our customers,” Fitzgerald said. 

“We typically have a good track record of serving them at a high standard,” he continued, “so when you compare that to a large conglomerate company that isn’t even based here… it can be a challenge for them to provide responsive service or good service sometimes.”

Municipal internet services have also been pursued in other areas of the state, with some communities in western Massachusetts, including Charlemont and  some of Hampshire County’s hilltowns, joining into WiredWest, a cooperative that allows towns to operate joint networks in order to save money and bring service to towns that otherwise have few other internet options, said David Dvore, an executive committee member of WiredWest and broadband municipal light plant manager for Rowe. 

But even for towns with other internet providers available, such as South Hadley or Charlemont, Dvore agreed that municipal internet has distinct draws.

“If you have your own municipal network, you can choose your service provider… there’s competition for service providers, which will get better service and prices that way.”

“The other thing is you have more control over policies like net neutrality and privacy policies,” he continued. “If you’re on your own municipal network, you can design those with the customers in mind. And if you went with the cable company, (towns) would have no control.”

While initial costs of establishing municipal internet can be higher than offers from other providers, as seen in Charlemont, Dvore said that municipal internet tends to be less expensive long-term.

South Hadley already has some fiber optic rings, which were constructed to support schools, SHELD’s own network needs and other town services, and have since been expanded to service businesses as well. Around 20 business customers and 14 municipal accounts are currently served by the fiber optic rings, Fitzgerald said, adding that business interest is “growing every day.”

SHELD originally began working with the fiber business in order to “work with and support the Five College Net expansion that came through South Hadley,” Fitzgerald added.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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