Williamstown ready to pitch town-owned broadband

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The big download is coming, and soon: a pitch to Williamstown residents as early as this fall on reasons to invest taxpayer money in a new high-tech tool.

After years of studying the merits of building their own broadband internet service, Williamstown officials are ready to take the conversation to public forums, then possibly to a town meeting vote next year.

Research so far suggests that within five years, a new fiber-optic network could bring in enough revenue to cover borrowing and operational costs, Andrew Hogeland told his Select Board colleagues Monday night.

Hogeland said forums will be scheduled starting in September to gauge public interest in internet speeds that would be 10 to 100 times faster than what's now available through a private company, Charter Communications.

But he cautioned that questions remain about financial assumptions used in an ongoing feasibility study by a consultant, DesignNine. One missing link is the "take rate," the term for the number of premises along a network's route that opt in for service.

Another is the price that people will be willing to pay.

"We need to hear from everybody in town," Hogeland said. "I want to make it happen responsibly."

In a briefing to the board Monday, Hogeland said signs point to Williamstown being able to make it work. "It's promising. That's a pleasant result," he said.

The Williamstown project comes as dozens of smaller towns in the area, including New Ashford, Windsor and Mount Washington, are finishing or pursuing municipal fiber-optic projects that pose a competitive challenge in terms of attracting new residents.

Because broadband internet service is available through Charter, Williamstown was not eligible for state grants provided through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

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At public forums this fall, Hogeland and others are expected to explain that even if customers are satisfied with current service, they should expect that things will change. If not frustrated yet, they soon will be, he suggested.

In the age of the "internet of things," the demand for bandwidth will continue to increase, Hogeland told the board. It remains to be seen how Charter will respond to that growing demand — or to the challenge posed by a municipally owned competitor.

If Williamstown does nothing, he said, it runs the risk of losing a competitive edge to other communities offering faster connections to the internet, regardless of Williamstown's other attractions. In particular, people seeking to operate businesses that require videoconferencing or streaming video could pass the town by.

"We've got the risk of being competitively de-selected," Hogeland said. But he and others believe creation of a town-owned network could change the game. "There's perhaps a reason why they would move here rather than somewhere else," he said.

Town Manager Jason Hoch said a key concern is figuring out how much residents would be willing to pay for the service.

"That's kind of where I'm struggling," he said.

Hogeland said that to ensure a high "take rate," the town might want to keep its rates competitive with Charter, even as a new publicly owned service provides download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, compared with speeds in the 50-to-100-megabits-per-second range provided by the private company's largely coaxial cable service.

Other questions to be answered, Hogeland said, are how to finance construction of a town-owned network, whether to build one in phases or all at once, how successful town-owned networks are managed, and what sources of funding beyond borrowing and the town's own free cash might be available.

He said hopes to bring a fiber-optic network proposal to the 2020 town meeting are "ambitious," but not impossible.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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