Springfield Explores Another Potential First: Municipal FTTH Network

Springfield prides itself as a “City of Firsts.” Located in central Massachusetts, 90 miles west of Boston, Springfield is where the nation’s first armory was located and where the first U.S.-made automobile was built. It’s also the birthplace of basketball and Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name “Dr. Seuss.”

Last month, the city took its first step to explore whether it will become the first of New England’s five biggest cities to build a municipal fiber-to-the-home network.

Channeling Dr. Seuss, who famously wrote “only you can control your future,” city officials are in the process of issuing a Request for Proposals to conduct a feasibility study to explore if Springfield (est. pop. 154,000) will control its digital future by meeting “the growing demand for reliable and affordable Internet service.”

According to a press release issued by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office, “the study would review such items including but not limited to the current Internet equipment and infrastructure in place across the city, gauge public interest, provide a cost analysis on infrastructure investment, review and assess maintenance cost, possible revenue sources, and exploring potential public/private partnerships and collaborations for the benefit of consumers.”

Pandemic Exposed Digital Chasm

The city is currently served by Comcast Xfinity and Verizon DSL. But, according to City Councilor Jesse Lederman, a leading advocate for better broadband in Springfield, the pandemic exposed a growing digital divide in the city while surrounding communities are increasingly being served by fiber networks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made a few things very clear,” Lederman told WAMC public radio. “The Internet has become an essential utility for residents and businesses. During COVID the Internet was really a primary way in which people were able to access education … to work, to conduct commerce, interact with local government, and access health care resources. And so we know we have to do more to ensure that our Internet access in Springfield is capable, that it is affordable, that it is high speed, and that it is accessible to all of our communities.”

The digital divide in the city has also become apparent to a number of leading community institutions. Margaret Tantillo, Executive Director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, has been one of those voices speaking to the importance of reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access.

“The digital divide has now become a chasm,” Tantillo told BusinessWest.com. “And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

In Springfield, Tantillo cited recent Census data that indicated 31 percent of households in Springfield have no Internet access whatsoever, while 37 percent of city households do not have a computer.

Lederman sees a municipal fiber network in Springfield as an essential tool for bringing digital equity to the city. “We need to make sure that if we move forward in providing this option to Springfield residents that we address that as well,” he said.

The Challenge Ahead

Of course, building a city-wide network will be challenging. “Certainly launching a municipal fiber network is going to be different then launching it in some of the other communities that we’ve seen in the Commonwealth and across the nation, essentially because of the size of the city of Springfield. We have 17 different neighborhoods across Springfield. Each of them is unique in terms of their infrastructure. We have a lot more multi-family dwellings and apartment buildings,” he added.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, credited Comcast for helping to connect families with school children during the pandemic. But, he told BusinessWest.com, “going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access. It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

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