Next steps in a Northampton Community Network

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz’s proposal adding $80,000 to the city’s capital improvement plan for two years starting July 1 to study a community network is great news. But what does this mean? Is a community network a done deal now? When can construction commence?

Naturally, it’s not that simple. The mayor’s proposal is the first but vitally necessary step of many that must go well to make a community network a reality. The study will determine if a community network makes economic sense. Creating a community network will take a long time and require persistence and patience. But the end result is worth the hassle: lowered costs for life for residents and businesses, higher speeds, higher reliability, greater upload speeds, and net neutrality, among many other advantages.

Northampton is governed by its charter and thus there are lots of ways this initiative could get derailed. No real study can start before July 1, the start of fiscal year 2020 for the city. Let us count some of the many obstacles in the way, the probable risks and mitigation strategies as appropriate:

  • Risk: The City Council could remove the proposed $80,000 from the mayor’s capital improvement plan. Likelihood: Low. Mitigation: reach out to all members of the city council so they understand the value of a community network and the necessity for supporting a study.
  • Risk: While the mayor can put the money in the plan, potentially he could decide not to spend it, or delay spending it. It’s not hard to imagine that as a busy mayor other things could command his attention, distracting him. Likelihood: Medium. Mitigation: Meet with the mayor to discuss this concern, find out how the city usually does these things and how we can help move this forward in a timely way.
  • Risk: The study could cost more money than budgeted. Likelihood: Low. The cost of the study should be known before a contract is awarded and excess costs would probably not be permitted. We suspect the $80,000 number is on the high side, but it depends on the scope of the study.
  • Risk: A survey of residents may indicate insufficient community support. Likelihood: Low. Northampton is a progressive community and likely to embrace this initiative. Mitigation: Continue to inform the community and engage them in discussion. Try to find out what they want in a community network so its features will meet its needs.
  • Risk: The estimated costs of construction may be too high to warrant proceeding. Likelihood: Low. We believe that the cost should be in the $10M-$15M range, but a study can give a much better estimate. This is based on studying costs of communities of similar sizes and knowing that the technology used is commoditized, and should get less expensive over time.
  • Risk: The city council may decide not to build a community network. Likelihood: Medium. Turnover on the city council happens with pretty much every election, so today’s supporters may be replaced with detractors. Mitigation: Reach out proactively to undecided or opposed members on the council. As needed, have residents in these wards contact their counselors to advocate for its support.
  • Risk: The method of building a community network may require ratification by the voters. For example, if Northampton chooses to create a Municipal Light Plant (MLP) as a vehicle, it would require 2/3 vote by the city council in two different fiscal years plus ratification by voters in a referendum. Likelihood: Low. The city could issue a RFP (request for proposals), which would probably be much simpler than using a MLP. We’re not aware of a compelling reason for the city to form a MLP given that its sole purpose would be for this network. Electricity would still be provided by National Grid.
  • Risk: There may be much dragging of feet completing the study. For example, the telephone poles are owned by either National Grid or Verizon. Most likely they would have to do the survey of poles, and past experience suggests they will take their times and may have to be prodded to do the work. Likelihood: High. Mitigation: Make completion of this task a priority for the entity that will do the study.
  • Risk: It may take a lot of time to arrange a vehicle for financing the network. LikelihoodMedium. This is ultimately up to the mayor and the city council. Mitigation: Address the concern with the mayor and city council.
  • Risk: Comcast will lower rates, undermining support for a community network. Likelihood: High. Comcast has been known to do this for other similar efforts. Mitigation: Make sure the mayor and the city council are prepared for this tactic. Rates that are temporarily lowered can be raised later after the threat disappears, as Comcast is not regulated as a utility. Judge the firmness of resident and business commitment during the survey with questions like: Are you less likely to support this effort if Comcast lowers prices to match those by other community networks?
  • Risk: 5G networks will be selected as a “solution” because they introduce competition. Likelihood: Low. We’ve looked at this issue and currently don’t see how it does much to lower prices or provide the high speeds residents would demand. It would not be a solution for the business community. See the posts on our website if you want to study this issue more.

So clearly it will be many years before a community network is constructed. And there will be many hurdles. We can anticipate setbacks. In general though, the better job the community does of anticipating these issues and addressing them proactively, the less likely they are to occur or become obstacles.

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