By Ben Greenfield
The question of Williamstown’s adopting its own broadband network covers a very dense subject. The ways a broadband network is utilized by a community are as diverse as the community itself. The town’s youngest users constantly use broadband automatically as a matter of course, those in home offices use it as their income stream, writers and artists as their outlet to the world, and businesses and private residents as a retail and social conduit.
The main problem is that the current state of available bandwidth in Williamstown is limited and expensive. The two basic and interrelated factors in resolving this problem are price and infrastructure. Of the 2,800 residencies in Williamstown, let’s guess a 1,000 now pay an average of $45 a month for broadband. That amounts to $45,000 a month of purchasing power that would be available to Williamstown for building and maintaining its own municipally-owned broadband network, available to everyone in town. Here are some conservative educated guesses on how the Town could pay for this new system: The total $45,000 cost for purchasing a brand new infrastructure would include $13,000 a month for monthly bandwidth subscription, $28,000 a month to pay off the debt on the network construction, and $4,000 for monthly operating and unexpected costs. Using these numbers, for $25,000 a month over 15 years, we can build a $4,500,000 network; over 30 years, a $9,500,000 network. This range represents the low and the high of what it would cost Williamstown to build its own infrastructure.
What is the best way for Williamstown to build such a network—all at once or neighborhood by neighborhood? Building a network all at once saves at least 20% on the total build-out cost, compared to building neighborhood by neighborhood. Also, the all-at-once method is better because it sets, from the beginning, a high-quality minimum standard for all residents of Williamstown. Our residents will have guaranteed access to all types of community support groups without having to leave their homes. The dynamics of medical care, for example, will change by providing access to World Class remote care.
The all-at-once method requires that the town agree on a political question—that investing as a town in a World class broadband infrastructure is a worthy goal. But suppose such access is important only to separate pockets of Williamstowners? Then neighbors should have a clear path to getting together and funding/building their own network infrastructure. Then, over time, the network neighborhood can grow and begin to cover the whole town and somewhere down the road all those that can afford access, will have access.
There is currently one neighborhood project being planned, to connect to a large broadband network already in place in our area of the state. Western Massachusetts has long suffered from lack of utility infrastructure investment. The federal government and Commonwealth funds from MBI, Mass Public Safety Office and Information Technology, had planned to split an approximately $90,000,000 bill to connect all the towns in Western Massachusetts to a state of the art broadband network. Either the funds ran out or MBI didn’t want to distribute this broadband network to each home because of the chaos of dealing with all the local right-of-way, zoning, and local personality issues. So the MBI chose instead to define, as users of this network, Community Anchor Institutions(CAI)—municipally owned properties like schools, medical centers and offices, town halls, colleges, and libraries—and leave it up to each town to decide if or how to distribute the broadband network. This part of a network build-out is commonly called the “last mile”.
Williamstown has access to high-speed internet as soon as it works out the details of the last mile. The neighborhood pilot project I am proposing here is aimed at laying out the whole network for the town and then focusing on building out a small part of the network to seed the growth. The project is currently in talks with the town on logistics of renting space in one of the CAIs to place equipment while planning the route to residents that want access to the network, and also for future growth. The pilot project will share information and design documents with each neighborhood as the network expands. The current projections for network speed and cost are 100 megabit for both upload and download speed at $45 a month.
How does Williamstown begin? When electricity first started to spread through the Commonwealth, different towns electrified in different ways. Some towns formed what is called a Municipal Light Plant (MLP) and those towns have fared best over the past century on electric rates and broadband network deployment. If Williamstown formed an MLP it would act as our broadband authority. If we built the network all at once it would co-ordinate that effort. If we pursue a neighborhood-by-neighborhood method, an MLP would co-ordinate access to the CAIs and maintain network infrastructure standards as do other Williamstown utility inspectors.
I think that Williamstown needs to form a Municipal Light Plant and decide the scope of a broadband network build-out. We should start talking now so we can start to prepare a warrant in the fall for the next Town Meeting.
[Ben Greenfield, of Cogs Inc., has 24 years of experience building interactive systems for businesses, museums, and individuals. He is Director of Technology at the Calder Foundation in New York, and lives in Williamstown. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org]