Falmouth Town Meeting, April 4, 2022

Select board member Megan English Braga speaks to the need for high-speed internet.

Town Meeting on Tuesday night approved a trio of articles that will allow the town to continue exploring a municipal broadband network. The 159-to-25 vote came after an hour and a half of verbal volleys on whether the large and potentially expensive undertaking had been financially vetted. The naysayers were challenged by residents weary of high-cost, unreliable internet service.

“Reliable internet is no longer a ‘nice to have.’” We are on 1980s infrastructure with constant brownouts in summer,” Marilois L. Snowman said. She is the vice president of the citizen-led nonprofit group FalmouthNet, the organization advocating for a town-driven fiber-optic network in Falmouth.

Throughout the debate, several residents said reliable internet is a necessity. The downsides of intermittent internet connections were cited as including: negative impact on children’s ability to learn remotely, loss of the internet during storms for businesses, and loss of internet for Main Street merchants during peak hours.

“Merchants can’t process payments during peak times and it’s affecting their businesses,” select board member Megan English Braga said. She said poor internet has caused problems at her work as an attorney when participants in a Zoom court trial “freeze” on the screen. The frozen screen also occurred frequently at remote select board hearings.

“People are asking for improved service,” she said.

FalmouthNet submitted Articles 25 to 27, all of which passed by a wide margin.

The first article asked to form a legal entity called a Municipal Light Plant (MLP) that would operate as an internet service provider. An MLP is a legal structure in the state statute to provide utility services, including internet, with bylaws to act on behalf of the community.

The article to allow an MLP passed by two-thirds majority at the November Town Meeting. State law requires a second vote within 13 months.

The next article asked to create a five-member citizen board that will oversee the MLP. Special legislation is needed to create the board.

Town Meeting also voted for Article 27, which allows the select board to hold a special election on the same day as the general election.

There is already a fiber-optic backbone in Falmouth. OpenCape, a nonprofit, acts as a “middle mile,” serving the schools, town hall, and some businesses. FalmouthNet is looking for fiber optics to build that last mile to connect to homes and businesses.

Judith Fenwick, Precinct One, said she was hoping for a presentation from FalmouthNet at Town Meeting with financial information and financing options.

“I wanted a discussion tonight on the business and financing, and then maybe I could vote for this,” she said. I want a foundation under the dream.”

Arthur Gaylord, a member of FalmouthNet, explained the MLP would be the entity that works on establishing a price point and coming up with potential business models.

Precinct One member Peter L. Clark said while there is monetary risk in building the network, none of the articles being voted on commits the town to the project or to spending any money.

“They allow us to look carefully at a developed financial plan from the MLP. Let’s move ahead to look at a final plan, and then make our decision,” he said.

A feasibility study conducted in March 2020 estimates that it will cost approximately $55 million to build a fiber-optic network capable of serving every home and business in Falmouth. It can be financed in several ways, including state and federal grants, a private company or by the town.

The study also found that Falmouth residents are dissatisfied with broadband service, citing Comcast’s slow download speeds and Verizon’s older DSL technology.

In a survey, 70 percent of Falmouth residents supported better internet access, and 92 percent stated they would like to see more competition in this area.

FalmouthNet was formed by a group of private citizens, many who contributed funds to get the project started. Judging from comments made during Town Meeting, there is some mistrust of the group after it peppered Town Meeting members and residents with collateral, print ads and other materials in a public relations campaign leading up to Town Meeting.

Town Meeting member Peter D. Cook was part of FalmouthNet when it formed, but left after two years.

“As a founding member, I was excited to create a competitor to Comcast,” he said, explaining how fortunate they were to have these donors including the vice president of Google, Vinton Cerf. He expected the funds would be used studying the financing for the project.

“I was dismayed to watch a great deal of funding go to marketing collateral and flyers to Town Meeting members, full-page ads in press, and direct mail to Town Meeting members. There has been no serious research done by them,” he said.

Ms. Snowman responded by saying FalmouthNet’s role is education and advocacy.

“I know some of you are about worn out with our advocacy. We heard it loud and clear,” she said. However, she maintained the outreach was needed to keep cable lobbyists at bay.

“We heard from other towns that pursued a municipal internet that the monopolies with deep pockets would work really hard to undermine us. The MLP will develop the right mix of funding sources. Any suggestion that Falmouth will bear the brunt of this on its own is just a talking point by a cable lobbyist. “

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