Demand for Internet connectivity, reliability, and affordability is growing. As devices steadily increase in number in homes across the United States, the limits of Internet service providers are becoming more apparent.
Residents in Falmouth, like residents in many communities in Massachusetts, have begun to look toward fiber as a means to ensure faster and more reliable Internet service. A fiber-optic network uses threads of glass, rather than copper, to send information through light.
Falmouth would be the first Cape Cod town to build a municipally owned fiber-optic network. Similar projects in towns across Massachusetts are underway or completed. More than 150 town-owned networks in the United States offer up to one gigabit of service, according to MuniNetworks, a website devoted to providing broadband network resources.
Westfield Gas & Electric’s Whip City Fiber division is in the process of connecting 20 small rural towns to a fiber-optic network in Western Massachusetts. The fiber is already live in Alford and Otis.
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Publication at Harvard University released a case study on Concord in February 2017.
Concord began laying more than 100 miles of fiber cable in 2009. Residents authorized the cable as part of a smart grid, aimed at helping the town-owned light and electric plant reduce costs, improve metering and control energy consumption. In 2013 Concord began to form a telecommunications division called Concord Light Broadband, an extension of Concord Municipal Light Plant. The town borrowed $600,000 to help the Internet provider connect fiber-optic cables to residences around town.
Today, Concord Light Broadband offers both residential and business Internet packages. Billing is part of a resident’s electric bill. The entry-level service, 35 megabits per second (mbps), costs $49.95 per month. The highest residential Internet offering, 300 mbps, costs $89.95. Connecting to the fiber-optic network requires residents to pay a one-time $150 installation fee and agree to a two-year contract.
Norwood, a town comparable in population density to Falmouth, runs a broadband service through the town’s electric company. The service is not entirely run on fiber. Fiber cables connect to telecom boxes in neighborhoods, and coaxial cables extend to houses. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for the development of broadband networks, referred to Norwood’s model as a hybrid fiber-coaxial network.
Norwood charges $39.95 per month for 100-mbps download speed and 30-mbps upload speed. The municipal company’s highest package, 300 mbps for downloads and 30 mbps for uploads, costs $59.95 per month.
Looking beyond Massachusetts, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was the first US town to build-out a fiber-optic network to facilitate speeds of up to one gigabit per second. In the same style as Concord, Chattanooga initially laid fiber-optic cables as part of the installation of a smart grid. The town did not undertake the effort alone and received more than $100 million in a federal stimulus grant. The initial network cost was $369 million, according to a case study at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Publication at Harvard University called “Smart Grid Paybacks: The Chattanooga Example.”
Chattanooga is now fondly called Gig City. The municipal provider, EPB, offers speeds of 1,000 mbps for $67.99 a month. That speed allows an individual to download an HD movie in under 10 seconds, the website reads.
The key difference between some of those examples and Falmouth is the presence of a town-owned electric company. Municipal governments often use the addition of an electrical smart grid as a reason to install fiber cables that “pass” residences and businesses throughout towns. None of the 15 towns on Cape Cod maintain municipal electric companies.
Mr. Mitchell said that adding Internet services to an electric company is often a “natural extension” for a city. Internet is treated like a utility. However, a town can still build-out a network without the municipal electric component. Towns may turn to middle-mile providers to help in the process. Mr. Mitchell pointed to OpenCape as an example.
OpenCape fiber already connects municipal buildings, emergency services, schools, and some businesses in Falmouth. Through a partnership with Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, OpenCape will soon extend service to shops and residences on Main Street.
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When asked over the phone about a residential expansion, OpenCape executive director Steven Johnston said funding would be a significant barrier. He estimated a cost of between $17 and $55 million to extend fiber cable to more than 21,000 housing units in Falmouth, and that is if OpenCape were to connect the whole town at once.
If the town were to build-out a municipal fiber network, it could develop a service contract with OpenCape, or a different company. “That way it becomes a profit center for the town and it becomes something they control and manage,” Mr. Johnston said. He added that he has spoken to members of the board of selectmen about the need for residential expansion in the past.
Other towns have financed fiber networks through bonds, grants and tax revenue, although it takes years to pay off the initial cost. “It’s incredibly expensive to build and maintain fiber,” Mr. Johnston said, but fiber networks offer economic benefits to the towns that install them.
Municipally owned networks can offer lower monthly prices to subscribers than outside corporations. Those in favor of fiber networks argue that a build-out can revitalize the economy of a town. Faster and more reliable Internet speeds facilitate the creation of new businesses.
A 2015 study from the Department of Finance at the University of Tennessee evaluated the value of the Chattanooga’s municipal fiber network over five years. The study credited EPB fiber with “economic and social benefits ranging from $865.3 million to $1.3 billion while additionally creating between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs.”
For the last three years, OpenCape has focused on connecting entities close to the backbone of the network, but Mr. Johnston acknowledged the importance of finding cost-effective ways to expand service. OpenCape is working on small pilot programs to test new means of delivering Internet access to residential neighborhoods.
As far as a municipal network that serves residential neighborhoods throughout Falmouth, “The only way this is going to happen is if the town says ‘This is critically important to the future of our town,’ “ Mr. Johnston said.