We’ve gotten a number of requests for a summary of a community broadband meeting with Mayor Sciarra on Wednesday. We were hoping the press would be there and report on it, and we informed the Gazette, but it appears they gave it a pass, despite articles about a vendor in Easthampton that started stringing fiber optic cable recently.
Overall it was interesting and productive, with a couple of dozen attendees in the city council chambers and as many as a hundred online. Along with the mayor and chief of staff, a representative from Design Nine, which authored a feasibility study for the city, and Antonio Pagan, the city’s recently departed chief technology officer, also attended. A good cross section of citizens were represented, including lower income communities.
So what follows is our coalition’s general observations. Remember that we are not journalists and obviously are biased in favor of such a project. We can accurately report the following:
- The citizenry expressed strong support for a municipal network. No one spoke against it. Design Nine estimated the full project would cost around $25M, with costs expected to increase over time. This is due to inflation and high demand for equipment due to recently passed federal broadband legislation.
- No one spoke in favor of Design Nine’s recommendation to keep the network open access for competition by private providers. The theory is that with multiple vendors acting as an ISP, this would introduce competition and probably reduce costs. It was quite the opposite. Numerous people spoke in favor of a city owned and managed network. There appears to be wide support for this approach.
- Numerous people also said that high speed internet is an absolute requirement these days so it made a lot of sense for the city to provide it as a utility.
- We were once again encouraged by the strong support for the network. Citizens seemed fully aware of the costs and didn’t bat an eye at supporting it despite the cost.
- To mitigate the mayor’s cost concerns, it was pointed out that partial sections of the community could be wired first, which would reduce initial costs. The city could use lessons learned during that phase to better inform how further phases of the community would be wired and managed.
- We sensed an eagerness to get the project moving, with some residents asking directly about next steps.
- Other residents pointed out that it’s important that the network offer privacy and net neutrality guarantees. We agree.
Moving forward requires due diligence, which was the whole purpose of the feasibility reports presented during the meeting. The reports show that the network will be financially viable, based on the assumptions about the number of residents and businesses that will become customers of a municipal network. These assumptions are derived from the market research surveys performed by Design Nine. Risk is required, but nothing happens if no risk is taken. We think based on the meeting, citizens demonstrated they are willing to take the risk, will back this project and want it to move forward.