Municipal Internet is gaining popularity on the South Shore

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WEYMOUTH – As CTO for a software company, Gary MacDougall said connecting to the internet every day is as essential to his job as having electricity.

“Everything I do during the day is online so if I lost the Internet for three or four days I would be in trouble,” said MacDougall, of Weymouth. “You have tons of people working from home and kids trying to make Zoom calls, so the Internet is definitely an essential utility.”

The pandemic has made it clear that high-speed internet is virtually essential to modern life, but millions of Americans are still not online due to access or cost, and others are struggling with slow service or unreliable.

Some South Shore communities – including Quincy, Weymouth and Milton – are exploring the potential of making high-speed Internet a public service, pairing it with utilities long considered essential such as water, electricity and sewers.

Quincy city councilor Ian Cain first pitched the idea of ​​municipal broadband in early 2018 after learning that Milton was exploring the concept. Cain said he pays over $ 100 a month for the internet through Comcast, the city’s only provider.

“(Municipal broadband) is a model for cities and towns to free the stranglehold of monopoly incumbents because they own the infrastructure and there is no incentive to improve quality,” said he declared. “It could bridge the digital divide by adding better service at a lower cost. “

A national need

The White House attributes the disproportionate cost of the Internet to a lack of competition. President Joe Biden said that about 65 million Americans live in an area with a single ISP, and 200 million live in areas with no more than two.

In Massachusetts, 2.5% of residents do not have adequate broadband infrastructure and 45.6% live in areas that have only one ISP, including Quincy and Weymouth, according to White House data.

Vice President Kamala Harris at the New Hampshire Electric Co-Op in Plymouth, NH on April 23, 2021.

The federal government has started investing billions of dollars in programs to bring broadband Internet to underserved communities. A massive infrastructure bill currently before Congress would allocate $ 65 million to expand high-speed Internet access across the country.

States have also started to take up the issue individually. The California legislature voted unanimously this summer to approve a $ 6 billion plan to build a statewide open-access fiber optic network.

Lisa Belmarsh, chair of the Weymouth school committee, said districts got the ‘ultimate test’ last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were given laptops and learning took place from a distance.

“The two big issues were access and reliability,” she said. “We want to make sure families have access to the internet at a reasonable price and make sure it works.”

Belmarsh said he heard about internet outages for some time, as well as access issues. Families could get mobile internet “hotspots” in the district as needed, but Belmarsh said this highlighted equity concerns.

“Not everyone can afford cable or internet access, so we need an option that’s accessible to all,” she said. “To a certain extent our Chromebooks are our books now, so if the internet goes down you don’t have any learning, so it’s essential that we have something extremely reliable.”

Interactive data:White House map shows broadband access

How it works

Consulting firm EntryPoint Networks worked with Quincy to develop a plan to bring Internet across town. In a study of 10,000 residents, EntryPoint found that 80% of those surveyed would participate in municipal broadband and that Quincy residents pay an average of about $ 93 per month for the internet, which is about $ 20 more than the national average. .

Under a system proposed by EntryPoint, the city would treat broadband as a utility and install and maintain $ 75 million worth of infrastructure – fiber optic cables and telephone poles – that service providers Internet access like Comcast and Verizon would use to provide services to residents.

In Weymouth: Weymouth hires consultant to draft city-wide internet master plan

In Milton: Milton takes first step towards starting municipal broadband service

EntryPoint CEO Jeff Christiansen said when the Internet first appeared, cable and telephone companies figured out how to use their existing infrastructure to deliver the service.

While there were as many as 2,000 cable companies at one time, Christiansen said the “giants” bought out the small businesses, eliminating competition and creating the monopolies that exist today in some areas.

Meanwhile, Christiansen said fiber optic internet is now available and 25,000 times faster than cable service, but most companies haven’t invested in upgrading networks.

Skylar Core with the Mason County Utility District is working with a team to install high-speed internet service to homes in a rural area surrounding Christine Lake near Belfair, Wash. On August 4.

“Telephone and cable companies treat infrastructure like a luxury, and cities and counties now know it’s not a luxury item. People have to have it, ”he said. “So communities are saying maybe infrastructure needs to be treated as a public service, where there is no selection and choice of who gets it and who doesn’t. “

EntryPoint Networks works with Quincy, New Haven, and Wilbraham, and Christiansen said the company is in talks with at least a dozen other Boston-area communities who want to explore the idea.

Competition drives prices down

Christiansen said most communities considering broadband are leaning towards open access, which means the municipality owns the fiber-optic network and residents have up to 10 different ISPs among which Choose.

“Consumers are not captive of one or two companies. It gives them choice and creates competition that lowers prices, ”he said.

While the initial investment is expensive, Christiansen said residents end up paying 10 to 30 percent less for internet service that is 10 times faster and more reliable.

“Municipal networks are not for profit, and they can fund the cost over 20 to 40 years and create real competition, which drives down prices,” he said. “It will be difficult for the cable companies to compete. “

Broadband for everyone: Inside President Biden’s $ 100 billion plan to improve internet access

If 60 percent of households participated in Quincy’s broadband program, Christiansen said, customers would pay about $ 50 per month for the first 20 years, or until the infrastructure is paid off. After that, the bills would drop to around $ 30 per month, he said.

Christiansen said municipal fiber optic networks are big projects that require strong leadership.

High-speed Internet access is still out of reach for some Americans.

“It’s doable because communities outsource most of the actual work, but they need to engage and think about the model they’re using,” he said, adding that Quincy had leadership that had worked hard to figure it out. “The biggest obstacle is inertia. People complain about Comcast, but it works. And they complain about the price, but they pay it.”

Not all communities have been successful with municipal broadband. A study released by Carey Law School at the University of Pennsylvania in July found that about half of the municipal broadband projects examined were not on track to break even in terms of capital expenditure and debt service assuming the best performance.

Communities explore the possibility

In Weymouth, Comcast is providing broadband service under a 10-year deal entered into by the administration of former Mayor Susan Kay in 2016. While the contract is not exclusive, Comcast is the only company to offer cover since.

Mayor Robert Hedlund said the lack of competition and service for the internet and cable was one of the most frequent complaints he heard from residents during his first year in office.

“The contract is not exclusive, but no other company wants to make the investment it would have to make to be competitive,” he said.

A person sits outside and looks at a laptop.

Hedlund said a second company recently approached the city to provide Internet and cable service, and that city council approved spending of $ 25,000 for a master plan to explore the creation of a city network of fiber optic and assess the public interest.

“We’re going to let the process unfold and do an assessment to find out what the municipal initiative would look like, and then compare it to what a company has proposed,” he said.

Joe Chamberlin started the local Milton Municipal Fiber Initiative after starting to explore municipal broadband in 2017. He said he was fed up with paying “outrageous prices” for an essential service that was “born into an environment. regulation that encouraged companies to monopolize “.

Chamberlin is now a member of the town’s municipal broadband committee, which follows the same process as Quincy.

When speaking to other municipal broadband residents, he said he points to Braintree. The city started its own power company a century ago, when power companies were monopolized and charged high tariffs.

“Broadband is analogous – it’s an essential service monopolized by commercial interests, so why can’t we just build our own for the public good? ” he said.

Chamberlin said the politics of the issue are one of the biggest hurdles as lobbyists for telecom companies try to block competition. Some states even have laws that make it illegal or difficult for communities to build their own broadband networks for residents.

“If you think about it culturally, you’re talking about the communication system of society and it’s being monopolized in a way that I don’t think is healthy,” he said. “There is a lot at stake.”

Tim Wilkerson, president of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, declined to comment for this story. The association represents private cable and telecommunications companies in five states.

USA Today material was used in this report.

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