Williamstown Broadband Survey Indicates Support for Town Project
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — An overwhelming majority of respondents to a town survey said they were "likely" or "very likely" to switch to a town-built fiber network for internet service.
But at least 60 percent of all homes and businesses on such a network would have to make such a switch to make the project sustainable.
Those were a couple of takeaways from a consultant's report delivered to the Select Board on this week.
The president and CEO of Virginia's Design Nine presented a report to the board about the results of the survey and the costs and benefits of building a townwide broadband network.
The idea has been considered by town officials for years. Back-to-back annual town meetings in 2020
and 2021 approved the concept of a "municipal light plant," the commonwealth's anachronism for the public utility that one day could operate such a network.
Design Nine's Andrew Cohill clarified that while the town would own the cables, commercial internet service providers would use the infrastructure to deliver services to town residents.
"It would be operated on an open-access basis, and regional or local ISPs would provide the internet, not the town government," Cohill said. "This is a very important, key concept: This would not make the town compete with existing providers, and the town would not be selling internet service, telephone service or TV service.
"The town would simply provide, essentially, a digital road system. Private sector ISPs would pay for the cost of using that network to deliver internet, telephone and TV service. We would expect the cost of gig internet would be about $65 to $75 per month."
"Gig internet" is shorthand for service that provides connection speeds of up to a gigabit (1,000 megabits) of data per second.
Design Nine estimates that 97 percent of Williamstown's households currently pay $50 per month for internet service plus $75 per month for television and $35 for a landline telephone for a total monthly cost of $160.
Marketers of the broadband internet services sell it as replacing all three of those services because download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second facilitate easy streaming of video, replacing the need for satellite or cable television. On the other hand, that "$65 to $75 per month" estimated cost of internet service on a town-owned network does not include the cost of optional streaming services [Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Peacock, etc.].
To test the market support for creating a town-owned network, Williamstown earlier this year conducted a survey. It received 393 responses, a 17 percent response rate, "which is considered very, very good for this kind of survey," Cohill said.
The survey found that 87 percent of respondents were "likely" or "very likely" to switch to a town-owned fiber network if available and 34 percent are "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with their current internet speeds.
In general, 72 percent of those answering the survey said they "want better internet service."
Cohill said the availability of broadband internet is an economic development issue for the town.
"We talk to real estate agents all the time who tell us people won't get out of a car to look at a house if the agent can't assure them it has good, high-performance broadband," he said.
"We think you'd have at least two and possibly three providers competing for services to customers. In other open-access networks that have been built in the U.S. by municipalities, typically, the providers work harder to offer good customer service, and it also encourages providers to lower cost. So you get better service, lower cost and, of course, it makes the town more attractive to people looking for a great place to live."
It would cost the town about $7 million, using current market prices with a 10 percent contingency, to build a fiber optic network, Cohill said. That cost could be minded and paid off in 25 years with the rental fees the town charges ISPS – if the aforementioned 60 percent "take rate" pans out, he said.
"If the take rate grows to 60 percent by year three, the network begins to generate positive cash flow and covers all operating expenses from revenue," according to Design Nine's analysis. "If the take rate grows beyond 60 percent and expenses are managed carefully, the network can be very successful financially."
Select Board Chair Andy Hogeland, who has been working with a group of interested residents on studying the broadband question for years, told his colleagues Monday that his next step would be to present Design Nine's analysis to the town's Finance Committee later this spring, after that panel has finished its review of the town's fiscal year 2023 spending plan.
In other business on Monday, an environmental scientist with engineering firm Stantec gave a presentation about plans for tree cutting in the flight path of the Harriman & West Airport on the border of North Adams and Williamstown.
Randy Christensen said the trees were identified as part of an audit of the facility's air space conducted as part of a required master planning process.
"For this particular runway at this particular time, the FAA is mandating the removal of obstructions," Christensen said.
Some of the trees are on private land, and some are on a parcel owned by the town of Williamstown, but the work does not require any approval by a town board or committee. The Select Board invited the airport to given a presentation in order to inform residents about the work, which the airport hopes to have wrapped up in May.
The Select Board also heard a request from Jim Mahon of the Williamstown Democratic Town Committee, who asked the board to support a resolution in favor of the Fair Share Amendment to the commonwealth's constitution that will be back on the ballot for voters this November.
The amendment would create a 4 percent state tax on personal income over the first $1 million with the intention that the revenue go toward education and transportation.
The board took no action after hearing that Mahon is preparing a citizen's petition to put the resolution before attendees at May's annual town meeting. Hogeland suggested that the Select Board could make an advisory vote to town meeting next month when it does advisory votes on all other articles going to the full town.