Charlemont Chooses Muni Fiber Over Comcast Cartel

The people of Charlemont, Massachusetts, are ready to pay approximatly $1.5 million to own broadband infrastructure rather than shell over $462,000 to Comcast for cable Internet access in their community. At a packed December 6th town meeting, voters showed up to handily defeat the proposal from the cable giant and express their support for a publicly owned fiber optic network.

Making the Best Choice for Charlemont

According to Robert Handsaker, who chairs the Charlemont Broadband Committee, the standing room only crowd at the local school defeated the Comcast proposal by a 20 percent margin. He went on to state that the town already has a design prepared, which it developed with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E). WG+E has been working with approximately 20 western Massachusetts towns interested in publicly owned broadband networks in several different capacities, including consulting and design. Having developed their own network, WhipCity Fiber, the Westfield utility is now offering skills as a consultant and as a network operator to nearby communities.

The Comcast proposal required Charlemont to kick in more than $462,000 while only serving 96 percent of the community. Ownership of the infrastructure would have remained with the national company. The city has been exploring options for at least two years, after plans for the broadband cooperative Wired West changed. When voters at a 2015 town meeting voted to approve borrowing for the project, community leaders considered Leverett’s financing model, using moderate property taxes to fund the project.

In the warrant article fact sheet comparing the two proposals side by side, Charlemont plans rates for $79 per month for symmetrical gigabit stand alone Internet access unless the local take rate falls below 40 percent, in which case it would increase to $99 per month. Comcast service would cost from $61 - $311 per month depending on speeds, with 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download estimated at $101 per month. Comcast upload speeds would be slower. 

seal-Charlemont-MA.png Homeowners in Charlemont would also need to pay an average of $.66 per month per $1,000 of valuation until the infrastructure is paid off. With fewer subscribers, that rate increase and with more, that rate decreases. Voice service would also be available for an additional $23 per month from the town and up to $48 per month from Comcast.

Check out the other comparisons on the warrant sheet.

State Funding

Charlemont has received a grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), which provided $960,000; the town used the funds for network design. Before they proceeded, however, town council wanted to present the Comcast proposal to voters.

The Greenfield Recorder reports that the Broadband Committee and the Finance Committee each took up the proposal from the cable company and, while the Broadband Committee voted unanimously to reject it, the opposite happened in the Finance Committee. The Selectboard chose not to make a recommendation to voters, letting people of Charlemont review the options and decide for themselves. However, two of the three Selectboard members spoke at the town meeting in favor of the Comcast plan, Handsaker said.

Shifting Plans

The 1,200 folks in Charlemont have anticipated fiber connections for years, having first planned to improve Internet access as a WiredWest member town. residents committed to the project by paying a $49 deposit to guarantee their connection to the proposed regional network.

When the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) objected to WiredWest’s plan to operate as a cooperative of Municipal Light Plants (MLPs), which are local entities responsible for operating publicly owned broadband networks, plans to develop a regional network began to fracture. MBI developed criteria that communities needed to meet before they could access funding, which slowed the process further. Community leaders took heart from the fact that more than 40 percent of households signed up with WiredWest, indicating a genuine interest in fiber optic service. Along with other local communities, Charlemont released an RFP for fiber optic design and contracting to develop a town network.

logo-westfield-wge.png WG+E will build and operate the network; the Westfield utility has secured a little more than $100,000 in CAF-II funding that will apply to the Charlemont project. As in the case of Leverett, the town will choose an ISP to offer services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure. With control that comes with ownership, they will have the option to choose a different Internet access company if they aren’t happy with the service they receive.

Hansaker told the Recorder that next the city will begin filing make-ready applications with utilities that own poles in Charlemont.

Image of Curtis Country Store in Charlemont by John Phelan [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.