Charlemont eyes Comcast broadband

  • Charlemont Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2018 3:32:22 PM

CHARLEMONT – If the town can get Comcast Cable broadband for $1 million less than taxpayers would spend for a town-owned fiber optic network, which broadband plan would voters prefer?

Town officials are now weighing the pros and cons of each broadband choice, but voters will have their say at a special town meeting on Dec. 6, at the Hawlemont Regional School.

But, the Selectboard and Broadband Committee will first host an informational meeting on Sunday, Dec. 2, to discuss the Comcast proposal with residents and get their feedback on this complex issue.

A “yes” vote on Dec. 6 will mean the town has chosen the privately owned cable company to provide the town’s broadband service for at least 15 years; and it means the town would pay $462,123 plus interest as its share of infrastructure costs. Currently, there is no Comcast service in Charlemont.

A “no” vote means Charlemont declines Comcast’s offer and will go forward with the fiber optic build out approved by annual town meeting voters three years ago.

In 2015, annual town meeting voters agreed to spend up to $1.75 million to build a town-owned fiber optic broadband network. But in March, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute asked town officials to consider a proposal by Comcast to bring high-speed internet cable to town for less money.

According to the town’s Broadband Committee, the build-out of a municipal fiber optic network that reaches 100 percent of homes would cost $1,466,972 plus interest over a 20-year period.

The cost of a Comcast cable installation to the town will be $462,123 plus interest over a 15-year period — with the money to come from “cherry sheet” reductions in annual state aid.

The tax-rate impact of the Comcast proposal would be about 29 cents per $1,000 valuation for 15 years.

The tax impact for the municipal network varies widely, depending on what percentage of households become broadband subscribers. If only 40 percent of households subscribe to the town broadband service, the effect on the tax rate would be about 66 cents per $1,000 valuation. With 59 percent of households taking broadband service, the tax hike would be 29 cents, similar to that for Comcast. But if 72 percent or more of households subscribe to the municipal-owned network, there is no tax impact, because subscriber fees would pay for it.

Under both proposals, standard aerial “drops,” or curb-to-house connection is free to homes with driveways less than 250 feet long. For Comcast service, Comcast would pay up to the first additional $1,400 for non-standard drops. For the municipal broadband, the town would pay up to $1,400 for non-standard drops.

Installation costs for Comcast service would be $80 for a standard connection, and a internet modem and TV boxes are not included. For the fiber optic service, there is free installation for first-floor locations and a wi-fi router free of charge.

The Comcast proposal excludes Bassett Road, which has three households, but would wire at least 96 percent of the town. Broadband Committee Chairman Bob Handsaker said Charlemont may be able to negotiate with Heath to include those homes in Heath’s build-out, with Charlemont to pay the additional cost for having a few residents on the Heath system.

Comcast is offering $10/month low-income internet in Charlemont, which requires proof of income eligibility. Other internet-only packages range from $50 to $105 per month. Comcast’s triple-play internet-TV-telephone package ranges from $156 to $170.

The cost for a similar package of the three services is about $142 per month for the municipal network, with basic internet at about $79 per month.

 Handsaker said Worthington, another hilltown without internet access, recently approved a Comcast deal similar to that offered to Charlemont.

According to the Broadband Committee, the advantages in accepting the Comcast offer are dealing with a nationally recognized company, no risk to the town from future broadband competitors, introductory promotional pricing, less town borrowing, and the $10 internet-only option for low income households.

The disadvantages to going with Comcast are having a monopoly service provider; having slower broadband technology than with a fiber optic network; no control over future pricing, and possible speed caps and potential to slow down competitive TV content from the internet.

The pluses of a town-owned fiber optic network include a faster 100 percent fiber-to-the-home network; town-owned and controlled service, that higher-than 40 percent take rates will reduce the tax burden; transparent billing and marketing; no extra fees except government-mandated phone taxes; and the same speed for all subscribers and content.

The disadvantages of the town-owned network include competitive risk from cheaper internet technologies; higher town borrowing; town responsibility for the network; and that volunteers would be needed to run the MLP (Municipal Light Plant) board.


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