Even though they don't have to chip in any local funds, the town of Shutesbury, Massachusetts, rejected Charter’s proposal to build a hybrid fiber coaxial network in their community. They don’t consider the proposal a “good long-term solution to bring broadband to our town" and prefer to build a publicly owned fiber-optic network for future-proof technology, provider accountability, and local control.
You Get What You Pay For
Unlike Charter’s proposal to serve only 96 percent of the homes in the community, the town made a commitment to include all members of the community some time ago. Charter would not extend its proposal to include about three dozen properties that are further out unless the town committed to providing funds above and beyond what the state offered to provide as part of the proposal. Board of Selectmen Chair Michael Vinskey went on to tell MassLive that Charter would not commit to a specific cost for extending a network to those additional homes.
In the words of Vinskey, committing to such an ambiguous arrangement, “would not be fiscally responsible.” No kidding.
Shutesbury authorized spending for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network once already. In 2015, folks at the annual Town Meeting voted to approve $1.7 million in bonding to pay for the infrastructure. They’ll take another vote this May for the debt exclusion authorization, as required by state law.
Community leaders estimate deployment to every property at approximately $2.57 million. Their share of the state grants that are to be distributed by MBI come to $870,000 for construction and professional services. Like the community of Leverett, Shutesbury intends to use a modest property tax increase to fund the infrastructure investment.
A basic subscription for Internet access at speeds higher than those proposed by Charter would cost approximately $75 per month and would not include video services but would include Voice over IP (VoIP) services. A number of the local communities in the western Massachusetts region have dealt with sub-par telephone services due to aging infrastructure.
Shutesbury wants to include symmetrical Internet access speeds, so upload and download are equally fast, in order to encourage a participatory environment rather than just a consumerism. They understand that businesses need robust upload speeds and that an increasing number of potential residents want to be able to work from home.
Charter’s proposal would offer several tiers, but its basic plan would cost $59 per month and would only offer speeds of up to 60 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload. They plan on offering video even though an increasing number of subscribers are cutting the cord to opt for OTT video selections. As current and former cable and DSL Internet access customers know, advertised speeds are the upper end of the spectrum and typically the number of people using the system has an effect on whether or not subscribers ever obtain those advertised speeds.
The proposed Charter network wasn’t redundant and was only served by a single line through New Salem, which rightly concerned town leadership. Businesses that rely on connectivity for transactions or properties that choose VoIP could be completely cut off in the case of a single one cut. With their own FTTH network, Shutesbury could insist on a design to eliminate the possibility of complete failure.
Community leaders were especially concerned with relinquishing local control to a distant, profit driven cable provider. First, they did not want to face the possibility of rate increases with no accountability. Second, they felt that lack of regulation for VoIP and Internet access would give Charter or a subsequent provider the ability to raise rates, refuse upgrades, or provide shoddy service, defeating the meaning of the “no risk, no cost” option.
Read more about why Shutesbury chose to pass on Charter’s proposal in the elected officials' analysis of the plan.
According to Vinskey, the community is willing to invest local funds to get a system that will serve them well:
Vinskey said fiber would provide higher speeds, be more durable and redundant, and give the town local control. "We are committed to a proposal that incorporates hardware that will allow increased capacity well into the future," he wrote.
Throwing A Wrench In The Machine?
After several years of drama between the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the WiredWest broadband cooperative, powerful incumbent providers, and dozens of local communities, events finally seem to be moving forward. In February, MBI announced that itwould finally release funding for engineering and design so communities that wish to pursue the publicly owned network option can begin planning their projects.
Over the past year, MBI has worked with local incumbents like Charter to establish proposals for the unserved and underserved western Massachusetts communities. MBI and the incumbents presented several proposals that would allow “no-cost, no-risk” options to towns like Shutesbury.
The incumbents would receive state funding to build network infrastructure - typically cable or hybrid fiber coaxial cable - that the incumbents would own. Charter’s proposal to Shutesbury also included five other hill towns - Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, and Princeton - all communities that have struggled with poor connectivity and have investigated the possibility of municipal networks. A number of the towns in the proposed Charter project, including Shutesbury, had planned on working with WiredWest. What will happen to the proposal now that Shutesbury has declined the offer is uncertain because that proposal was described as "unseverable." All towns considering offers from incumbents face a decision deadline of March 24th.
Charter would have qualified for $4,872,239 in construction grants to build infrastructure that they would have owned, had all six communities chosen to accept the offer.
Comcast Proposal For Nearby 'Burgs
While Shutesbury has opted out of the Charter proposal, there is also a smaller Comcast proposal for several other communities, one of which included Shutesbury. Now that the town has officially declared that it wants to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, the future of that proposal may need adjustments as well.
Next In Shutesbury
On March 28th, Shutesbury will hold a special Town Meeting to provide updates to the community. Attendees will also be asked to vote on a measure to set the number of members of the Municipal Light Plant (MLP) board at five. The town established an MLP, the entity charged with administering municipal networks, six years ago when they first planned to develop their own infrastructure but now wish to separate it from the Select Board.
The town is currently engaged in its pole survey with make-ready work from the utility companies as the next required step. Along the way, they will need to secure an entity to operate and manage the network and an Internet access provider. WiredWest has expressed an interest in filling the role of operator for local communities.
Shutesbury hopes to start serving the community with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via its publicly owned FTTH network by late 2018 or early 2019.
Pic of the Shutesbury Community Church by John Phelan (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons