PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The administration believes that Pittsfield becoming an internet service provider would be beneficial to the city in a number of ways. A completed study finds its feasible but estimates a cost of $63 million to become internet independent.
Though Pittsfield is not traditionally underserved by corporate internet providers, it is at the mercy of large service providers who may or may not choose to invest in further internet infrastructure.
"Continued lack of investment on infrastructure will eventually leave Pittsfield at a competitive disadvantage," Chief Information Officer Michael Steben said in presenting the study to the City Council on Tuesday. "Eventually resulting in damaged local economy."
Mayor Linda Tyer and Steben believe that broadband internet access is an essential utility and that fast, reliable, and affordable access to internet is important for all facets of life in Pittsfield. This includes running businesses, education, and recreation.
Businesses and consumers demand more bandwidth each year, and demand has greatly increased with the pandemic forcing professionals to work from home and students to learn from home.
As an internet service provider, Pittsfield would be able to provide broadband internet access to both residents and business owners. Steben said municipalities that have successfully become ISPs have been able to provide residents and business fiber-optic internet that is fairly priced.
Steben explained that this would be of interest for the city because broadband is infrastructure, just as roads are, and would support public and private enterprise.
Currently, private sector internet providers such as Spectrum aren't providing what businesses and residences truly need for internet, he said.
The municipality could benefit from fiber optics by attracting and retaining jobs, lowering the cost of internet access for business, making the community more attractive for work from home, providing support for K-12 distance learning, and increasing property values.
Steben said property values could rise anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. This also makes the area more attractive to younger millennial families.
In the study, it was determined that it would cost the city around $63 million to bring internet and fiber optics to every dwelling and business location within the city.
Steben outlined two basic approaches for the buildout and financing of this project. The first is a subscription-based model in which the city would only hook up residents and businesses who opt to subscribe to the internet service. In order for this to be possible, they would need a takeaway that is a minimum of 40 percent, meaning that at least 40 percent of individuals on a given street would agree to get this internet service. Under this model, service costs would generally be higher because there are fewer customers.
The other option is a utility fee model, which treats broadband infrastructure as a utility. Under this model, every home and business is connected and pays a modest monthly fee. The base fee would be between $10-$15 a month, which provides a starter internet package that is enough to do web surfing and check email. This would be a real value for users with fewer internet requirements, Steben said.
For residents with increased internet needs, they would be able to pay more for faster internet. Steben said studies have indicated that 50-60 percent of subscribers would opt to pay up.
Another benefit of fiber optics is that it has a great shelf life. Steben estimated that Pittsfield's infrastructure would provide service for about 40-45 years and beyond.
If Pittsfield became an ISP it would be an open-access network, meaning that city would finance infrastructure buildout and then invite other ISPs to operate under that infrastructure. This allows smaller providers to compete and provide residents with a better price, where they normally wouldn't be able to.
Steben explained that this would provide everyone in the network with business-class internet. Because of COVID-19, most businesses are now run from people's homes and children are facing a digital divide linked to inequality during digital learning, he said. This solution is meant to address both problems and more.
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey said there are certain homes in his ward that Spectrum doesn't cover, preventing residents from working remotely. Kavey is in support of this option because it will bring equal internet access to all wards.
"I think the work that you are doing is really important," he said. "And I do support where you are at right now."
Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi said she is optimistic about the proposal.
"This is a project that I am really excited about," she said. "My view is that there is endless opportunities if we can increase our connection."
Steben said this started as a conversation last year between himself and Tyer, and with her help it was funded within five weeks.
A $75,000 earmark in last year's state budget funded the feasibility study by Design Nine Inc. Steben said the next steps will be to do a much more detailed analysis of the proposal.
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Starr Williams gives the valedictory speech at Berkshire Community College's 2019 commencement.
"I like to be a statistic breaker," says Soncere "Starr" Williams. That's putting it mildly. At age 40, Williams, Berkshire Community College's 2019 valedictorian, has overcome more obstacles than most people would in a lifetime. Once a high school dropout, she is the product of an abusive foster home who entered into a dark world of substance abuse, mental illness, and juvenile crime. Today, she's an outspoken advocate for the underprivileged — and she's headed to Columbia University for a master's degree in social work (MSW).
"I come from poverty. I come from a place where people don't succeed, because there are far too many barriers to climb over. It's one of the reasons I'm in social work," says Starr, who graduated BCC with a perfect 4.0 GPA, earning an associate's degree in human services and an addiction recovery assistant certificate before transferring to Elms College in Chicopee. She will graduate from Elms in a few weeks with a bachelor's degree in social work, once again earning a 4.0 GPA, before beginning classes at Columbia this summer.
Getting accepted into an Ivy League school still has Starr pinching herself. "The fact that I'm going to have an MSW from Columbia University still kind of feels like, no, this isn't happening, this is a dream," she says. "People like me are told, 'You're not going to be anything.' When you grow up in that in that environment, you're pegged as going nowhere for the rest of your life. Now, I'm going to have an Ivy League education, and I did it on my own."
Climbing out of the depths
Starr credits many mentors along the way for helping her succeed. Most recently, she has been working with Celia Clancy, president and CEO of Berkshire Business and Professional Women, who has been cheering her on through the application process and sent her an enthusiastic note of congratulations upon learning of her acceptance to Columbia. At BCC, mentors included Assistant Dean of Students Beth Wallace (now retired), Professor of Human Services Kari Dupuis, Associate Professor of Human Services Pamela Coley McCann, and Professor of Sociology Stacy Evans. "They are amazing individuals who are there to support their students," Starr says, recalling many after-hours conversations with Evans. "We talked about climbing out of the depths of poverty and addiction and how hard that is. She gets it."
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