PITTSFIELD — Should Pittsfield go into the internet business?
That's the question behind a feasibility study that the city plans to embark on this summer, after Mayor Linda Tyer and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, say they successfully secured an exploratory $75,000 in the state budget.
They say the funds will fuel a feasibility study looking at whether the city should become its own internet service provider — an idea that could provide faster, cheaper and more reliable internet to Pittsfield customers.
Assuming Gov. Charlie Baker signs off on the budget, the study will investigate the demand for such a move and the cost associated with it.
Farley-Bouvier said Tyer asked for her support on the initiative in March, after hearing from the city's Chief Information Officer Mike Steben about the promise it could hold for the city. She pointed to Westfield as an example of a nearby community that has become its own internet provider in the interest of providing stronger internet service to its people.
In Westfield, consumers pay about two-thirds of the commercial rate for internet, Farley-Bouvier said.
She said the move would protect consumers from Spectrum's rising prices and lack of commitment to the city.
"We know the costs are really high; the customer service is poor," she said. "Because there's little-to-no competition here, they can continue to do that."
Andrew Russell, Spectrum’s director of communications, said his company remains committed to providing quality customer service.
Steben said the prevailing copper wires, which transfer data via electricity, can only transfer so much data. He said fiber optic cables are made of glass strands and transmit data with light, and that's what the city needs more of.
"Consumer and business bandwidth requirements are going up and up," he said. "It is no longer a fair statement to say cable internet is good enough."
He said it's important that Pittsfield is able to provide a platform for innovation.
"We can't rely on large corporate [internet service providers] to decide whether they're going to invest in us or not," he said. "We really need to understand that; we need to get in front of this as a city."
In order to ensure the city has a foot in the modern world, officials said, the city might need to take control of the infrastructure.
"By doing this we would future-proof Pittsfield," Farley-Bouvier said, noting the prevailing corporate providers tend to leave behind small- to-mid-sized markets. "We don't have any confidence that Charter Spectrum would continue to invest in Pittsfield."
But Russell said Spectrum continues to spend money enhancing service in Pittsfield and throughout the Berkshires.
“We also offer even faster speeds to business customers who may need more bandwidth, including direct fiber connections capable of multi-gigabit speed symmetrical services,” Russell said.
If after the study the city decides to move forward with building the infrastructure, Farley-Bouvier said it would likely need to bond the investment — at a cost likely to land upward of $100 million.
"Although the city of Pittsfield has not traditionally been underserved by corporate Internet providers, we recognize that we could be better served, and we must look to the future," Tyer said in a Thursday news release. "We are pleased to have the advocacy and support of Representative Farley-Bouvier and our state partners toward securing funding for this important and transformational initiative in Pittsfield."
Jesse Cook-Dubin, president of the board at Downtown Pittsfield Inc., said fiber optic cables run down North and South streets, but outside of that he called the service spotty. For businesses that want a direct connection, he said he's heard it can take months to set up.
There are important redevelopment areas for which there is no high-speed service, like at the William Stanley Business Park.
"Obviously it's tough to put in an advanced manufacturing business without fiber optic internet," he said.
And because businesses rely increasingly on data stored in the cloud to perform day-to-day functions, he said "the stability of fiber is as important as the speed."
The competition the city would provide would be a healthy infusion, said John Sinopoli, CEO at the Pittsfield-based IT company, Synagex. He said it's notable how low the city's fiber penetration is, and that there is virtually no residential fiber.
"In Pittsfield we've been pretty limited in our options," he said.
Spectrum has started to slowly spread fiber optic service, he said, but the infrastructure just isn't there.
"Somebody's gotta build it, and I think that's really the big nut," he said.
If the city doesn't step up to do it, he said, "we put ourselves at the mercy of Spectrum."
He said more companies are converting their phone systems to voiceover internet protocol systems and buying cloud-based systems, and so the need for more bandwidth is growing.
As a result, Sinopoli said he's had to ask local carriers to get creative about alternative ways to boost internet power, like via wireless internet, satellite and DSL.
"Basically these are workarounds that we have to come up with because we don't have access to things like fiber," he said.
For all these reasons, Sinopoli said he's excited to hear the city is thinking about providing internet.
"If places like Pittsfield wanna be a hub for innovation — if we wanna be a home for new businesses — these are the sorts of infrastructures that have to be in place," he said.
And it's not just the business connections that are important for economic growth, he said, as young professionals often launch startups from their homes.
Years ago Berkshire advocates thought the city needed access to a highway in order to stay relevant, developer David Carver said, but things have changed.
"We need high-speed internet," he said. "Not a high-speed highway."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
This story has been updated to add comments from Spectrum.