WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The working group looking to bring fiber optic broadband to the Village Beautiful is nearing the point where it can broaden the conversation.
But it is not quite at the point of having a finished proposal to present to residents.
Select Board member Andrew Hogeland last week gave an update to his colleague on the broadband initiative that dates back at least three years and had the support of the town's 2015 Economic Development Committee.
"The answer seems to be: It's promising," Hogeland said.
The current thinking of the working group is that the solution will be a town-owned system. But what is unknown is how much it would cost or whether participation would be voluntary or somehow incorporated into the tax base.
"It seems clear we can fund the initial network through a bond and free cash," Hogeland said. "We may be able to charge user fees to [other] internet providers to rent our space. The income you get from subscriptions and rental fees could, in four or five years, pay for the whole project.
"There are a long list of things we're looking at. … We need to get sound financial projections for capital and operational costs. To make it palatable, the charges you pay as a consumer would not be much different. They may be a little [higher], but you get 1,000 megabytes per second."
That is the allure of broadband.
Where conventional coaxial cable, which serves most homes and businesses in Williamstown, data can be downloaded at between 50 and 100 mps or uploaded at about 10 mps, Hogeland said.
Fiber optics promise downloads that are 10 times faster and uploads that are 100 times faster -- which is a big factor in the town's hopes to attract new residents and encourage home businesses for new or current residents.
"We are in competition with other towns around the state and country who are doing this," Hogeland said. "There are lots of reasons to come to Williamstown, but if there's another town like us that also has broadband … "
The EDC's 2016 report backs up the idea that the town may be at a competitive disadvantage without broadband.
"The Best Practices study found a positive correlation between broadbandaccess and economic prosperity," the report reads in part. "Other studies of the broadband industry confirmthis correlation, and indicate that towns with broadband access have a better business environment and higher real estate values compared to communities without broadband."
Hogeland said commercial internet providers do not get the same return on investment in rural areas that they get in more populous communities, and the study group has found examples of other towns that have set up municipally-owned fiber optic networks.
The study group plans to continue looking at the lessons learned by communities that already have gone this route, and it hopes to have some formal proposals to roll out in Williamstown as early as this fall.
"We need to hear from everyone in the town," Hogeland said. "We need to get a feel of how much support there is.
"Success depends on the 'take rate.' There's a critical mass of subscribers we need."
A resident who was at last Monday's meeting to speak on another topic immediately quipped that the town could sign her up right away, prompting Town Manager Jason Hoch to ask, "Are you ready to sign up at $10 more a month, $20 more a month, $40 more a month"?"
"I hate bringing forward a [town] budget that asks you for $20 more each month in taxes," Hoch said. "What does this mean on top of that?"
"People like their Internet," Select Board member Hugh Daley quipped.
Hogeland said the study group of eight to 10 interested community members has some more work to do before presenting a more fleshed out plan as early as September.
In other business last Monday, the Select Board approved a street closure at Cole Avenue and Front Street for a July 13 block party; OK'd the reappointment of members with expired terms on the Community Preservation Committee, Affordable Housing Trust, Municipal Scholarship Committee and Zoning Board of Appeals; and dealt with an Open Meeting Law complaint against the Select Board.
Resident Joan Fitzpatrick-Diver lodged the complaint against Hoch after a confrontation prior to the Select Board's meeting on May 28, the session when the board annually does its reorganization after town meeting.
Fitzpatrick-Diver writes in her complaint that Hoch "targeted our group of senior citizens" who came to the May 28 meeting to present the board with a petition and ask for an agenda item at a subsequent meeting. The complaint further alleges that Hoch violated the OML by expressing an opinion about the petition in front of members of the Select Board but before the board was in session.
Then-Chairwoman Anne O'Connor mentioned the petition and passed it along to incoming Chairman Jeffrey Thomas for discussion at a later meeting. But Fitpatrick-Diver did not speak at the half-hour long May 28 meeting, much of which was spent deciding the board's summer meeting calendar.
At the board's next meeting on June 10, Fitzpatrick-Diver appeared before the board to complain about a lack of posting of public meeting notices at the Harper Center, the town's senior center.
On June 24, Thomas gave the board's response to the OML complaint, dated June 11.
"I've spent some time studying the complaint, reviewing the Open Meeting Law, consulting with several people I know who are knowledgeable on the subject," Thomas said. "I've determined there was no violation by the town manager. She was allowed to speak at the meeting; then chair Anne O'Connor allowed her to speak. The reason she was discouraged from speaking [on May 28] is because it was an unusual meeting for us. … We hadn't put petitioner's requests on the agenda. She was allowed to address the board at a subsequent meeting. On that ground alone, there was not a violation.
"But trumping all that is the town manager is not a member of the select board. He's not subject to limitations on deliberation under the Open Meeting Law on Select Board matters. That's affirmed by a ruling by the state Attorney General's Office."
Fitzpatrick-Diver has the right to pursue the matter further with the Attorney General's Office after receiving the board's written response.
"We do not plan to pursue the matter further, and we thank Ms. Fitzpatrick-Diver for bringing the matter to our attention," Thomas said.
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