Belmont residents and businesses have two choices when it comes to broadband Internet service: Verizon and Comcast. But what if a third option existed: community owned broadband. Fourteen Massachusetts communities have already adopted it. Could Belmont be the next? Belmont’s own Michael Crowley explains how municipal broadband works and why it might be a good option for Belmont to consider.
When it comes to Internet Service Providers (ISP’s), we in Belmont are mostly left with one of two choices: Verizon’s FiOS fiber optic service or Comcast’s Xfinity. Outside of these two dominant players, there just aren’t any other good alternatives.
Both companies have locked in most of the households in our community with short term teaser rates, after which the cost of internet service rises dramatically. Most of us learn to live with this—and generally through resignation. Or, we resign ourselves to the hassle of calling our ISP and threatening to shift to the other provider, finally negotiating for a temporary and minor discount. (I just renegotiated for a slight $5 a month discount with Verizon.)
But what if there was another way to get Internet Service without the aggravation of negotiating with two market behemoths? A way to receive a competitive service at a competitive price? Some Massachusetts communities have found just such an alternative in something called “community broadband.”
Community broadband is a publicly owned and financed alternative that’s already found a home in several Massachusetts communities, including nearby Concord. In the case of Concord, the town’s light department has strung fiber optic cable on the very same electrical utility poles that the town owns, creating Concord Light Broadband, a publicly owned fiber optic network serving businesses and residents in that town with Internet service at speeds up to 200 Mbps (megabits per second) for homes and 300 Mbps for businesses. Prices are competitive with commercial providers like Verizon and Comcast, though those services do offer higher speed plans.
But this isn’t just about the price tag. Some of the other benefits of community broadband include bringing more competition and reliability to the local market for internet services. Now that the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality regulations have been repealed, another big concern might be that we are completely vulnerable to the prospect that Verizon and Comcast will give priority to their own content, or to major corporations willing to pay so that their content won’t be throttled.
Small businesses, alternative information services, or other consumer-desired content—even community blogs like Blogging Belmont (!!)—could well see a more limited internet future without net neutrality. With two big commercial players controlling access to the internet in Belmont, that means that the way WE use the internet is at risk. That doesn’t have to be our future.
Nationally, 750 communities have adopted some form of municipal broadband including publicly owned cable or fiber service. At least 14 communities in Massachusetts have a municipal internet service. While there is a cost for stringing fiber optic cable, as well as connecting homes and businesses, communities like Concord and Holyoke have already reported savings. Commercial ISP’s, especially Verizon and Comcast aren’t especially fond of the competition, but it also holds their feet to the fire on rate-setting, something that just doesn’t seem to work as well under a purely state regulatory framework.
The fact that Belmont has a municipal electrical utility confers an important advantage for a potential community broadband program. We already own the utility poles on which the fiber optic cables would need to be strung. This is something that neighboring communities like Arlington, Cambridge, and Watertown just don’t have. Of course, there is a cost for constructing a community broadband service, but it is something that can be met chiefly by publicly issued bonds paid for customers.
Here’s another advantage we have here in Belmont—in terms of expertise, we don’t have to start from scratch. We have the know-how right here in our own Belmont Light Department. Christopher Roy, Belmont Light’s new general manager was until this past April the assistant director of Concord Light, which owns and operates Concord’s community broadband service. Chris also serves on the Town of Harvard’s Broadband Committee, which is exploring bringing community broadband to that town (of which Chris is a resident). I spoke with Chris following the taping of an interview at the Belmont Media Center on July 19th and found that he is an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic proponent of community broadband.
We don’t have to have a future in which our choice of ISP’s is limited to two corporate giants. The loss of net neutrality needs a national solution, but we can take steps here in Belmont to mitigate the risk for ourselves. Community broadband is something that we should be thinking about for ourselves and our town.