|Williamstown Select Board Discusses Municipal Broadband Survey Results|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
02:33AM / Tuesday, February 11, 2020
|Andrew Hogeland, left, and Jeffrey Thomas participate in Monday's Williamstown Select Board meeting.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A majority of town residents say they want the town to pursue municipal fiber optic service.
But there are miles to go before the "last mile" broadband access can be completed, officials cautioned on Monday night.
Select Board member Andrew Hogeland, who has been part of a study group looking at the feasibility of broadband, reported to his colleagues the results of a townwide survey that was distributed along with the annual town census this winter.
Hogeland said the study group was encouraged by the data showing 55 percent of the town's residents said their feelings about the initiative are reflected by the statement: "I'm in. If we don't take this into our own hands, we will never have Internet access on par with other communities."
That 55 percent reflects the opinion of a fairly high percentage of residents. Surveys were mailed to about 3,000 households, and the town received more than 1,300 responses, Hogeland said.
"It was a pretty significant turnout," he said.
And a significant number of those respondents — 42 percent — said they would be willing to switch Internet providers to a town-owned utility if the monthly charge is the same as what they are paying now, given the prospect of a town-owned service providing five to 10 times more bandwidth than commercial carriers.
Another 25 percent said that they would be willing to switch if the town-owned service charges up to 10 percent more, and nearly 10 percent said they would be willing to pay up to 25 percent more for a town-owned service.
Price sensitivity is a major consideration if the town decides to go forward with setting up municipal broadband.
"We could charge some more than what's being charged today, but every five or 10 dollars we go up, we'll be losing people who don't want to switch or don't want to lose 'bundling,' " Hogeland said.
The survey found that a high percentage of respondents pay for Internet access as part of a suite of services provided by Spectrum, including cable television. Since those bundles bring discounts, anyone who switches to the town-owned fiber optic (which would be Internet only) likely would see their cable TV fees increase.
In order for a town-owned utility to succeed, it would need a large number of residents to sign on.
"Take rate is the most important issue," said Micah Singer, who works with Hogeland on the study. "Andy and I have talked about 50 percent of the town as the threshold. And the survey shows we may have that.
"Ultimately, if we could largely supplant Spectrum, we could provide service at the same rate or maybe less."
Singer, Hogeland and their partners are communicating with Westfield Gas & Electric, which is building a broadband network in 20 Western Massachusetts communities, according to the Springfield Republican.
Hogeland said he'd like to have a representative from Westfield Gas & Electric appear at a public forum on the broadband question that he wants to hold next month.
He also agreed that there is a lot the town has to learn before deciding to make the leap into the fiber optic business.
After Select Board Chair Jeffrey Thomas raised some pointed questions about the economics of municipal broadband, Hogeland said he shares Thomas' concerns.
"There's a lot to worry about," Hogeland said. "I'll spend another half hour on my worries if you want. The service has to be good. The take rate has to be good. The price has to be not too much more than it is today.
"I've been doing this as a study. I'm not advocating to do this. It's worrisome to me. This is a business we'd be getting into. I want to make sure the questions you're asking are answered better a year from now."
That said, the results of this winter's survey indicate most town residents want officials to keep trying to get those answers, Hogeland said.
To that end, Hogeland proposes this spring to ask town meeting for funding for a paid consultant to find more concrete answers.
He also suggested that town meeting be asked to vote on establishing a "municipal light plant," the statutory term for a utility like Westfield Gas & Electric. Such a step by the town requires an affirmative vote at two different town meetings held not more than 13 months apart, Hogeland said.
And voting to approve the existence of such a utility would not be the same as voting to spend money on installing a fiber optic network. He described the "municipal light plant" as a shell that the town could choose to use down the road to implement a broadband project if it chooses to do so.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board got a sneak preview from the town manager about the fiscal 2021 municipal budget he will begin presenting to the Finance Committee next week.
Jason Hoch told the board that for all town operations, he is projecting a net need for new taxes of "minus $103.93."
In other words, he is projecting no need for a tax increase to support town hall's side of the FY21 budget. The majority of the money raised from property taxes, though, goes to support the Mount Greylock Regional School District, which still is developing its FY21 budget, which is apportioned between the member towns of Williamstown and Lanesborough.
The Finance Committee begins reviewing the FY21 budget next Wednesday at town hall.
Hoch also used Monday's meeting to remind residents that the deadline to register for the 2020 presidential primary is Wednesday at 8 p.m., and the town clerk will hold extended hours that night to accommodate last-minute registrants.
The primary, scheduled for March 3, will be preceded by five days of early voting, starting on Monday, Feb. 24, at town hall and including a Wednesday evening session at the Harper Center on Church Street, Hoch said.