WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Voters likely will be asked at May's annual town meeting to fund an engineering study to look options for providing broadband Internet access in the town.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Andrew Hogeland presented his colleagues on Monday with the report of an ad hoc working group that spent the last year on "a conceptual analysis on costs, benefits, and options for deciding whether [the] town should pursue generally available broadband access."
The committee recommended three avenues for the town to direct its efforts: press Charter Communications to see whether the cable company can improve on the speeds it needs to offer customers under terms of the regulatory approval of its takeover of the former Time Warner Cable; pursue a Technical Assistance Grant through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission with other underserved towns like Williamstown that do not qualify for funds from the commonwealth's Massachusetts Broadband Initiative; and develop a budget for an engineering study to look at the town's demand and estimate the cost of potentially meeting that demand through, for example, a fiber-optic network.
"We will be at a competitive disadvantage to the 44 towns that can access the MBI program," Hogeland said. "There are other Berkshire County cities and towns that share that situation — North Adams, Pittsfield, Great Barrington.
"This would be a way to get these four municipalities working to share information and maybe do some lobbying down the road."
Hogeland and Town Manager Jason Hoch, who also served on the broadband working group, said the application for the Technical Assistance Grant has been filed. But Hogeland and other members of the group explained that there are questions that need to be answered on a municipal basis, and those are the questions to be addressed in the study, which is estimated to cost anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.
"This work will have to be done in Pittsfield, Williamstown, North Adams and Great Barrington," said Donald Dubendorf, who served on the six-person working group. "You've really got to begin with that engineering work."
Hogeland put it another way.
"It's short money to pay, but it will tell you how high the mountain is that you need to climb and then you can decide whether you want to climb it," he said.
Part of the study that the group hopes town meeting approves will look at whether there is broad community support for broadband internet service. In other words: Are enough people in town dissatisfied with their current upload and download speeds?
There certainly have been a number of proponents who have been pushing the issue for years, and the town's Economic Development Committee listed broadband service as a priority because of the documented relationship between internet access and business activity.
"We're walking into this in a deliberative, slow, measured way," Hogeland said. "We might have high cost and low demand, and then we're done. If we get over the hurdle that it's something people really want and will pay for, then ... ."
Selectman Jeffrey Thomas, who chaired the EDC, thanked the working group for its efforts to advance one of the suggestions in the EDC report but sought to clarify that the engineering study is not the only path the town will follow.
"Path 2 [the Technical Assistance Grant] is applied for and in motion," Hoch said.
"Path 1 [lobbying Charter] is going to happen," Hogeland said. "It's no cost to the town. It's a bunch of phone calls."
And Path 3, Hoch noted, could help the town in its efforts to put pressure on the cable giant.
"A positive vote at town meeting saying we're interested in getting into this market on our own might get our phone call returned quicker," Hoch said.
In other business on Monday, Hoch told the board it can expect to hear some good news when he goes over his proposed fiscal 2018 budget, set to be presented to a working session on Wednesday morning.
Hoch said that he has been able to bring the town's budget increase in at a little less than 2 percent over FY17. That was by design.
"We've been trying to bring forward as much stability as we can can on the town side because we expect some more challenging budget decisions coming from the school," Hoch said.
That said, he told the selectmen he also was encouraged from what he heard in a Monday meeting with the interim schools superintendent.
While Mount Greylock Regional School's draft FY18 budget is up by about 5 percent — an increase driven entirely by the school building project — the town's assessment from Williamstown Elementary School looks to be coming in below what Hoch feared, he said.
"I projected higher increases for operations from both schools and then aligned our numbers to make them work," he said. "The fact that we're seeing better numbers [from the schools] helps."
Hoch also informed the board that thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the town hopes to have its Code Red reverse-911 notification system online some time in March. Initially, landline telephone numbers from public lists will be included in the system, but Hoch said residents will be able to add cell phones and email addresses to the system, which allows the town to send out notifications of road closures, power outages and other emergencies on either a townwide or neighborhood-specific basis.
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