Falmouth Creates Municipal Utility for Broadband

It’s official. Falmouth, Massachusetts has established a legal framework, a telecommunications utility, that is a key milestone in a local effort to bring fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) Internet service to this seaside community of approximately 32,000 famous for being home to a world-class marine science community as well as a popular summer vacation destination.

In the fall, Town Meeting voters voted 175-13 for the creation of the utility called a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). The law, however, requires two separate ‘yes’ votes with a 2/3 majority within a 13-month period. That second vote came earlier this month, when Town Meeting voters said “yes” to establishing an MLP by a vote of 159 to 25, well in excess of the 2/3 majority that was needed.

It allows Falmouth to move to the next step – figuring out the financing – which would allow Falmouth to join the growing ranks of communities in the Bay State (and be the first of 15 Cape Cod towns) to have undertaken municipal broadband projects over the last several years.

Voters Reject Opposition Arguments

Though a small group of municipal broadband critics strenuously argued in opposition to the formation of an MLP by raising a number of thoroughly debunked claims about locally-owned networks, ultimately Town Meeting voters were more persuaded by the experiences of resident’s such as Marilois Snowman who owns a digital marketing agency in town.

While the state does not require communities to establish an MLP in order to build a broadband network, establishing one enables municipalities to formally create a telecommunications utility, which offers several advantages for building a locally based network such as the ability to form alliances and more easily contract for services.

Snowman told the Cape Cod Times why she got behind the effort to bring FTTH service to Falmouth, even though the town has long been served by Comcast. She described how she had to move her business off-Cape and now commutes 50 minutes each way because with the connection she had in Falmouth she often had trouble uploading files and was frequently getting dropped off important Zoom calls. But it was how poor Internet connectivity was impacting her children that pushed over the edge.

“To see my kids in tears because they’re afraid they’re going to fail this college exam because they don’t have Internet [access], it’s just ridiculous,” Snowman said. 

Next Step: Figuring Out How to Finance Construction

The municipal broadband push so far has been led by FalmouthNet, a citizen-led nonprofit organization formed to make the case for (and spearhead) the effort. To date, FalmouthNet has managed to secure funding for the completion of a feasibility study, which estimated a town-wide FTTH network would cost about $55 million to build. They have also overseen the completion of a high-level engineering design report and have embarked on a public education campaign.

But with the formation of an MLP, Town Meeting voters also authorized the creation of a five-member MLP board. Once the board is elected at the town’s November election, it will steer the town’s efforts moving forward.

Of course, the $55 million question the MLP board will need to wrestle with is where to get the funding to build the network.

That means considering everything from either recommending a bond issue, seeking private financing, persuading local and state officials to help fund construction with federal grant funds from the American Rescue Plan Act or forthcoming funds being allocated to the states in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or some combination of all of the above.

FalmouthNet President Courtney Bird, who spoke at Town Meeting on the ubiquitous need for fast, reliable, and affordable Internet service succinctly summarized where the project stands now that the MLP has been formed:

The formation of the (MLP) is an important milestone, but there's still a lot of work to do until the first fibers are lit. Like Winston Churchill said, ‘we're not near the end, rather we’re at the end of the beginning.’

Watch a video of the FalmouthNet story below:

*CBN senior reporter and editor Sean Gonsalves serves on the advisory board of FalmouthNet

Inline image of Main St Falmouth courtesy of Flickr user MarTina Oefelein, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)