My Turn: Broadband opportunities — internet as infrastructure

Published: 2/2/2021 12:22:14 PM

On Dec 10. Tim Wilkerson, president and CEO of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, penned an article opining on what he termed the public misperception of broadband delivery in small-town America. It appears the article was written to try and justify Comcast’s latest announcement that unlimited data would be ending and why this is unlikely to cost their subscribers very much money.

Mr. Wilkerson also cited examples of municipal internet services in two New England towns that had failed. The inference is that we should trust the existing telephone and cable companies to provide basic internet services and not to go down a risky path of setting up a municipal internet service in our towns.

Mr. Wilkerson used just two examples of failed municipal internet services that occurred over a decade ago at the height of the last recession. Since then, both towns cited have continued to enjoy low-cost, high speed internet service, based on the town’s original network, that is both faster and less expensive than other offerings. The towns’ users also have higher customer satisfaction than the traditional cable or telephone company internet offerings.

In fact, there are many more examples of successful municipal broadband networks all over the country. Networks have gotten cheaper, faster, and simpler to build than 10 years ago. However, the big change is not in the network itself but how we use it.

Remember when getting a fast internet connection was a luxury? In today’s pandemic-stricken world it is a requirement for remote learning, work from home, tele-medicine, as well as entertainment. In fact, the real profit for most internet providers comes from the streaming services we have all come to love (or hate) and not the network itself.

This brings us to the key point of this article. Massachusetts has already funded and built a fiber network that reaches every town in Western Massachusetts. Of the 44 unserved/underserved Western Massachusetts communities, fully 22 have opted to extend this network to every home and offer their own municipal internet service. Most are very rural with just three to ten homes per mile and have trouble getting affordable, high-speed internet access. To build their networks, these towns used special funds from the state to hire experienced contractors and internet service providers.

Towns such as New Salem, Rowe, Heath, Windsor, Washington, and Becket have banded together to form the Wired West cooperative to make it even simpler to design, build, and support their municipal high-speed networks. With a typical price of $75-$85 per month for 1 gigabit per second for both download and upload, this is a great deal for which 70% of the town resident’s sign-up. Even at these lower prices, the towns have enough cash flow to cover operating expenses and make a significant contribution toward the debt service for the money the towns borrowed to build the networks.

Mr. Wilkerson also states that internet networks are not like water pipes. He is right, they are more like electrical wires and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a unique law [MGL 164, Sections 34 and 47C] that allows communities to offer their own internet service much like an electrical connection. Let us start thinking of the internet to our home as infrastructure — plain old, boring infrastructure that brings electricity, water, and internet access that we depend upon.

Once it is recognized that internet connections are basic plumbing to our homes, we can then start to explore the full potential of having connectivity everywhere. We no longer need to accept seeing children access the internet in a parking lot. We need to have high-speed networks everywhere. Innovation will then accelerate in unimaginable ways. Just imagine far reaching ideas such as letting our elders live comfortably at home using a wide variety of health and wellness technology to avoid the trauma and high costs associated with moving into assisted living.

It is time that we insist that internet access is treated as essential infrastructure. Only then can we see the creation of the services that are truly life changing regardless of where you live or work.

Jim Drawe is executive director of Wired West and lives in Cummington. His organization is enabling city-owned municipal internet services in New Salem, Rowe, Heath, Windsor, Washington, and Becket. Bob Frankston is the co-inventor of the spreadsheet and champion for home networking while at Microsoft. He lives in Newton.

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