How could a Northampton municipal network be managed?

In this post we look at various ways the city could manage a municipal network.

There are a lot of choices, but one thing is clear: to do it, the city will create a municipal light plant (MLP). It’s this entity that will have authority to manage a municipal network. In last November’s election, voters allowed the city to create a MLP.

A MLP is an entity separate from the general city government because it’s big enough, distinct enough and unique enough of a service that it requires independent management. But it is also tied to the city and overseen by it. Hence you get MLPs like the South Hadley Electric & Light Department which provides a municipal network for residents, or Whip City Fiber in Westfield, which is actually part of Westfield Gas & Electric, Westfield’s long established MLP.

It’s likely that Mayor Sciarra will submit a proposal for the City Council to approve the establishment of a MLP. There will likely be another ordinance describing its proposed governing structure. In this sense, her decision has long lasting implications, as once established the model is unlikely to change.

The city-operated model

A true city-run network would be totally internal. The MLP will be a separate legal entity from the city, but it would be staffed by city employees. The city would likely choose a vendor to create the network, but when complete, the city would manage it with its own resources. It would handle billing, connecting subscribers to the network and all maintenance and service changes. The MLP might have their own trucks. Employees might wear uniforms identifying themselves as employees of the MLP.

Properly chartered, an MLP could be somewhat entrepreneurial, allowing it to create or manage other networks. This could become a revenue stream for the MLP, potentially lowering rates. Whip City Fiber in Westfield constructs and runs other municipal networks in the area, such as Plainfield’s network.

The contract-it-out model

An opposite approach would be to have a Northampton MLP with a small oversight board and maybe a few city employees as high level managers. The city would put the actual operations of the network out for competitive bid, allowing the private sector to provide these services for fees to be negotiated.

The company chosen would have to meet requirements set by the MLP’s board, such as uptime guarantees and universal access. But otherwise the MLP would maintain a light touch. This model seems to work well for small towns where it doesn’t make sense to build this expertise in house. Leverett (population 1865) chose this approach. Leverett hired an independent company, GoNetSpeed (formerly Otelco) to manage its network. 

One potential downside is that since a for profit company would manage the network, its profits could cause subscription fees to be higher than if the city-operated model were used.

The hybrid model

The city could also choose a hybrid approach. For example, it could contract with a firm to handle customer support and service calls, but do the billing, provisioning and network management itself.


The mayor will need to propose a governance structure for the MLP. Most likely there will be some sort of governing board. It’s possible those on the board will be elected, like members to the Northampton School Committee, perhaps with ward and at-large representatives. Or the mayor may want the power to pick members of the governing board herself.

It’s also possible she would give the city’s chief information officer an oversight role, and he would bring relevant matters to her attention, but the city would otherwise be hands off. There are merits and downsides to both approaches.

There are bound to be concerns about rates charged, privacy, net neutrality, affordable access to low income residents and features the network should offer. An elected governing board would provide a good way for citizens to feel vested in the network, and to hold those who set the network’s rules accountable. The mayor and/or the city’s chief information officer should probably be standing members of the board.

Now is a good time to contact the mayor or your city councilors with your concerns if you have opinions on these matters.

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