Local Leaders Looking at Muni Possibilities in Northampton, Massachusetts

In May 2018, Mark Hamill and Lee Feldscher penned an opinion piece that ran in the Northampton Daily Hampshire Gazette. In their article, they laid out all the reasons why they believed their city needs a publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Nine months later, city leaders have approved funding for the first of a two-part feasibility study.

Comcast, the City Council, and Community Input

As the Hampshire County seat and home to about 26,000 people, Northampton, Massachusetts, has attracted Comcast as an Internet service provider. The presence of a cable Internet ISP means better connectivity than in most rural areas, but it also has evolved into lack of competition. As is often the result, residents experience poor customer service and are hungry for local Internet choice.

At a February 21st City Council meeting, Hamill and Feldscher spoke in favor of the feasibility study. They also presented a petition created by their grassroots group, Northampton Community Network, filled with hundreds of signatures. 

Feldscher presented the signatures to the mayor at the meeting.

“The unanimous response we received from people was, “Sure, I hate Comcast, where can I sign?” Feldscher said.

At the February 21st meeting, City Council approved funding to survey residents in Northampton to learn more about the potential of a municipal network. The funding, estimated at around $30,000 will come from the city’s Capital Improvement Program. The city will survey the community in 2020 and complete the feasibility study in 2021. Completing the study will cost approximately $40,000.

Feldscher and Hamill weren’t the only Northampton residents to support the resolution to fund the feasibility study. With the repeal of federal network neutrality protections, a growing number of people are concerned that large ISPs, such as Comcast, will take advantage of the gap in protection. Networks owned by and accountable to local citizens can enforce the tenets that the federal government no longer require since they repealed network neutrality, including throttling, data protection, and paid prioritization.

Doing Their Homework

Hamill and Feldscher founded the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition as a way to educate the community. They describe themselves as “advocates trying to convince the City Council to create this community network.”

The group has researched other communities in western Massachusetts and in other places where local governments have invested in publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure. In addition to the communities working with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), they’ve studied Leverett, Greenfield, and Chattanooga. Other communities in the state that are planning for, or investigating, the publicly owned option are also on their radar.

In addition to the most pressing issue of subscriber rates, the Northampton High-Speed Community Network Coalition has an eye toward future progress of the community. On their website, the Coalition has addressed FAQs, such as:

  • Network neutrality
  • Cost and financing
  • The Municipal Light Plant (MLP) process in Massachusetts
  • Benefits of local control
  • 5G
  • Competition and the status of Verizon FiOS in the region

The Coalition has also collected rates for similar speed tiers from Comcast and several municipal network Internet access providers so Northamptoners can compare. In order to allow folks from the community a voice, the Coalition has provided a link to their petition in support of a municipal network for the community.

Fiber in the Hood

According to a 2016 report from the city, Northampton already has municipal fiber connecting at least 26 buildings. Public schools, libraries, and municipal facilities use the fiber for services such as local area network connectivity and VoIP, but municipal facilities rely on private sector retail Internet access providers.

At the time of the report, Northampton decided that they would not pursue a FTTH network across the community. The city also has access to four strands of the Five College Network, a fiber optic network dedicated toward educational purposes that travels through several Massachusetts communities. The Five College Network fiber is intended only for non-commercial facilities. In 2016, the city was using only one of the four strands. Among other recommendations, the report suggested using the other three strands to connect municipal facilities to reduce the financial burden of connecting with private sector Internet access providers. 

The 2016 report concluded that, even though Northampton was not ready to begin serving businesses and residents, using city fiber assets for such activity in the future isn’t impossible. The report suggested that if the community wanted to move forward by investing in a publicly owned network, they should take a cautious and adopt an incremental approach, focusing on connecting businesses.

Three Years Later

Now that other communities in Massachusetts have developed their own municipal networks and subscribers are signing up, the market may look significantly different. Other towns in Massachusetts are proving that their residents want fast, affordable, reliable Internet access that’s accountable to subscribers who own the network. As communities around Northampton move forward with gigabit infrastructure, those in charge of the city’s future need to keep their eyes on the future because it’s important to stay competitive:

“We don’t want to be the last Western Mass town to have the benefits of a high-speed municipally controlled network,” said Feldscher.