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Williamstown studying installation of fiber-optic broadband network

Williamstown gains residents

Williamstown is asking residents and businesses to indicate whether they would sign up for a town-provided network of high-speed broadband internet service.

WILLIAMSTOWN — With an eye toward the future, town officials are evaluating whether to build a fiber-optic network to meet the increasing digital needs of residents and businesses.

Most people in town get internet service from Spectrum, but the delivery of that service depends on cables that may not have the bandwidth to handle future needs, said Andrew Hogeland, chairman of the Williamstown Select Board.

“We have seen some discontent with Spectrum regarding the constant changes to their fee structure and service issues,” he said.

Spectrum’s network is a combination of fiber-optic and coaxial cables, Hogeland noted. While fiber-optic cables have a much larger capacity to transmit data, the coaxial cables tend to have smaller bandwidth, essentially a bottleneck to higher speed data transfer.

For the idea to work in a financially feasible way, enough people in town need to sign up for the service to make it financially self-sustainable. Otherwise, the town’s investment in a money-losing venture would not be worth the effort and the money.

As a result, the town is sending out a survey of residents to see how many households and businesses would be interested in such a service, the percentage of which is known as the “take rate.”

“The take rate is so important,” Hogeland said. “It would have to be about 60 percent (of town residents and businesses) to have enough support for the network to pay for itself.”

He noted that if the take rate is high enough, the town would take the proposal to town meeting — likely in 2023 — for approval.

The survey will be made available in the next few days.

A bond issue would probably pay for the initial investment for installation of fiber-optic cable throughout town. Then the fees charged for the service would be used to pay down the bonds and maintain the network. Third-party operators would be engaged to conduct the installation project, operate the network and take care of the billing aspect.

The finished surveys are due Feb. 24, Hogeland said.

The effort to survey, organize and implement such a project will be “a significant challenge,” he added.

Don Dubendorf, a local attorney who has been involved in establishing better broadband in Williamstown for a couple of decades, said that providing fiber-optic broadband is the best way to ensure the town has the access it needs for the future of internet usage, which is predicted to dramatically expand in the coming years and decades.

“The best way to anticipate the future is a fiber-optic build-out,” Dubendorf said. “Because the existing infrastructure is not future-proof.”

He also noted that there is “a growing concern about the cost of internet access in towns like Williamstown.”

He said in the coming years, internet access will be essential for many needs, including health care, education and employment.

“The pandemic experience has shown us that internet access will be essential in the near future — it’s happening right now,” Dubendorf said. “It is inevitable.”

The network would only provide internet access. Dubendorf noted that the cable company provides internet, and it is frequently packaged with cable TV and landline telephone service. But droves of people in the U.S. are opting out of cable TV in favor of streaming, and out of landline phones in favor of cellphone service. So an internet only network could be the solution for people who stream video and don’t need a landline.

Several smaller Berkshire County towns have already installed townwide fiber-optic networks, such as New Ashford.

“We have to educate ourselves in all of Berkshire County to think seriously about these issues,” Dubendorf said. “This will not just go away. Otherwise, we are behind the technological eight ball.”

The surveys are being sent out via the U.S. Postal Service, and can be found online: Residential Survey at tinyurl.com/2p9hy4ht or Business Survey at tinyurl.com/23h3kx8z.

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-4622.

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