Williamstown, Massachusetts, may ask their constituents to vote on the creation of a publicly owned fiber optic system. For the town of 7,700, a vote on whether or not to invest in fast, affordable, reliable, Internet network infrastructure isn't imminent, however, as Williamstown still has significant research ahead.
An Ongoing Discussion
This past summer, community leaders learned from Select Board Member Andrew Hogeland more about the possibilities in Williamstown. He gave his update regarding the research on the broadband initiative at a July meeting:
“The answer seems to be: It's promising," Hogeland said.
"We are in competition with other towns around the state and country who are doing this," Hogeland said. "There are lots of reasons to come to Williamstown, but if there's another town like us that also has broadband … "
Williamstown began consideration of a municipal network several years ago, when the town’s 2015 Economic Development Committee began to investigate the potential for developing fiber optic infrastructure. The committee released a 2016 report that indicated Williamstown would face certain disadvantages if they didn't improve local connectivity for businesses. The report stated:
"The Best Practices study found a positive correlation between broadband access and economic prosperity. Other studies of the broadband industry confirm this correlation, and indicate that towns with broadband access have a better business environment and higher real estate values compared to communities without broadband."
Williamstown now has access to DSL and cable Internet access; community leaders want to explore interest before diving too deep into the project. The research group for Williamstown plans to do outreach this fall to residents and businesses as well as the possibility of including a survey to assess the demand of municipal fiber optic Internet access in the annual census. Local officials discussed the challenges involved with developing a sustainable municipal broadband project at a recent select board meeting. “Success is: Are you going to have more or less half the households sign up for this because it's going to take something like that," said Hogeland.
The Municipal Light Plant
For Williamstown to start the process of offering fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access, they must first create a municipal light plant (MLP). MLPs are municipal entities that provide utilities, such as gas or electricity, to residents and businesses. Hogeland hopes that fiber optics will also be included as part of the utilities offered; he sees it as the next logical step for Williamstown.
The process of creating an MLP requires two separate town meetings held at least two, but no more than 13 months apart. The town meetings require residents to be physically present during voting. If the MLP voting passes, it does not mean that the residents will commit to deploying a network. Funding, construction, and vendor selection require separate votes. "It's just setting up a framework. You've founded an organization on paper only, not agreed to do the project" Hogeland said.
With an area of 46.9 square miles and home to Williams College, the largest employer in town, Williamstown is the northwestern-most town in Massachusetts. In the late 1930s and 1940s, the daughter and son-in-law of John D. Rockefeller created Mount Hope Farm in the area, considered to be one of the most outstanding experimental farms in the country. The farm now belongs to Williams College.
The community is known as a center for art and theatre and has been the home of a long list of notable authors, actors, musicians, and visual artists. The town hosts the Clark Art Institute and the award-winning Williamstown Theatre Festival.