This November, voters in Easthampton, Massachusetts, will have the chance to grant the city the authority to establish a municipal light plant (MLP). If they pass the ballot measure, the community will legally be able to develop a publicly owned network. Passage doesn't gurantee Easthampton will take the next step and deploy a network, but the community has been researching options to better understand which direction is right for them if they decide to move forward.
Creating the MLP
In keeping with state law, communities in Massachusetts must form an MLP to manage municipal utilities and municipal broadband service. The Easthampton City Council voted twice over the past two fiscal years to approve an MLP, which then allowed the issue to be put on the ballot for voters.
Establishing the MLP doesn’t mean that the city will launch a network, but gives the community the necessary entity to manage it in the future, should they decide to do so. The MLP can also eventually offer other municipal utilities, such as electricity or gas.
At a September 11th public hearing, members of the Telecommunications Advisory Committee presented results of a local survey and shared their research. The committee formed in 2018, and began investigating the connectivity situation in Easthampton, possible community network models, and examples from other communities to be prepared if the issue moves forward.
Charter/Spectrum serves most of the community with cable Internet access and Verizon provides DSL in additional areas. According to Council Member Thomas Peake, who is also on the committee, there is little service area overlap between the two companies. The lack of competition from the private sector and resulting dissatisfaction from subscribers — rated an average of 2.94 out of 5 on the survey — prompted Easthampton to look into a publicly owned option.
Price, reliability, and speed were top priorities for survey respondents. Less than 30 percent had never experienced outages and more than 25 percent indicated that they experience outages multiple times per week. Almost 75 percent have or would consider switching to another provider.
The committee has already examined possible models and gathered early cost estimates for citywide deployment. Holyoke, Westfield, and Greenfield, all with their own community networks, have approached Easthampton to discuss the potential of developing partnerships. Cost estimates vary from $8 million to $15 million.
According to Peake, a partnership is an attractive option to reduce costs because, “We’re looking at maintaining a good credit rating and staying under our debt ceiling,” he said.
At the meeting, members of the committee also presented results of a survey taken by over 600 residents. Though Peake said he would not have “statistical confidence” that the survey was a good representation of the entire community based on how many people took it, he did think it showed the opinions of those who are interested in the service.
Check out the slides from the Telecommunications Advisory Committee presentation here to see more detailed findings from their research and the survey.
Neighbors Taking Action
Easthampton, home to approximately 16,000 people, is almost surrounded by other communities that have developed their own networks or are considering the investment. In addition to the cities that have expressed an interest in partnering, Chicopee, South Hadley, and Northampton recently launched initiatives. Springfield offers dark fiber and free Wi-Fi in the downtown area.
With so many communities nearby taking steps to improve local connectivity, remaining competitive with such poor options may become increaslingly difficult.
Voters will go to the polles on November 5th. Read Ballot Question 4 and the summary on the Easthampton ballot [PDF].
Image of Intersection of Parson St and Ferry St in Easthampton by Trace Meek from Easthampton, Massachusetts, United States [CC BY 2.0]