Who we are
We are a group of Northampton, Massachusetts residents interested in having much better and much less expensive high-speed Internet. Comcast/Xfinity has an effective monopoly on high-speed Internet service in Northampton. Having thoroughly researched the issue and finding no other companies willing to provide competition, the only way to break this monopoly is to create a community-managed network to serve Northampton residents, businesses and workers. Therefore we advocate for the creation of such a network.
What’s a community network?
A community network provides internet and related services to citizens as a utility. A more technical term is municipal network, but the term community network is more intuitive. It is usually overseen by a publicly accountable institution, such as a local government. The general idea is to provide these services at minimal cost with features that meet the needs of its subscribers. You can learn much more on muninetworks.org.
A number of communities in Western Massachusetts already have their own community networks, or are constructing community networks. Some recent examples include the Towns of Leverett, the City of Holyoke (through Holyoke Gas & Electric, but for businesses only), the City of Westfield, and the towns of South Hadley and Plainfield. Easthampton, Agawam and West Springfield are considering community networks too. We think it’s time for Northampton to have one as well.
Leverett is a great example of an effective community network. Residents get 1 gigabit per second (1Gbps) fiber access to the home for about $73/month. Leverett is mostly rural yet they enjoy much higher Internet speeds and Internet quality than Northampton residents do and for much less cost.
How much could I save with a community network?
|Comcast/Xfinity Plan Name||Maximum download speed ("up to" rate for Comcast/Xfinity)||Comcast Monthly Rate (after initial discounts)||Westfield MA (Whip City Fiber) Monthly Rate||Leverett MA (Otelco) Monthly Rate||Chattanooga TN (EPB) Monthly Rate||Ammon ID Monthly Rate||South Hadley, MA||Plainfield, MA|
|Gigabit Internet||1.2Gbps Comcast/Xfinity - 1Gbps for others||$113.95||$69.95||$73.89||$67.99||$49.50||$74.95||$85.00|
Note: Comcast/Xfinity pricing and features are as of December 20, 2021 and after any initial new subscriber discounts. See their rate sheet. Rates shown in the table are for internet-only rates. There are multiple “bundles” offered by Xfinity that discount internet services if you add cable TV and/or phone services. We use the Comcast/Xfinity internet-only rates to make one-to-one comparisons with community networks. Ammon, Idaho rates shows the least expensive option (multiple providers compete).
This table provides recent Comcast rates with similar community networks pricing. For example:
- Chattanooga community network subscribers pay $67.99 a month for 1 Gbps service. Comcast’s “up to” 1.2 Gbps service (closest equivalent) will cost you $113.95 a month, 68% more than Chattanooga.
- In Ammon, Idaho you can get a 1Gbps service for $49.50 a month, just 43% of what Comcast charges for its “up to” 1.2 Gbps (closest equivalent).
In most cases, community networks offer the same upload and download speeds. This is not true with Comcast, which offers upload speeds generally at or below 15megabits per second (15Mbps). For some people, upload speed is as important or more important than download speeds. Note also that these are residential rates. Businesses spend considerably more, as documented here.
The city-run Ammon, Idaho network is an interesting case. The city provides the infrastructure, but multiple companies compete to provide Internet, telephone, and television services on their network. Subscribers pay off the $3000-$3500 it costs to bring fiber to their home at approximately $22.00 per month, which is part of the monthly subscriber fee. When paid off, or if they pay this in a lump sum, their bill is $22.00 per month lower.
Why compete with Comcast/Xfinity?
- The private sector is not always better, faster and cheaper, particularly when they have no competition. In fact, the private sector is useless if they won’t even provide internet services, as is true in most Western Massachusetts hill towns, because they don’t judge it to be profitable. In general, community networks provide services at least as good as those provided by commercial suppliers like Comcast and usually for substantially less cost.
- It appears that Comcast has no plans to significantly upgrade their network. We know for a fact that while Comcast does have fiber on many of the telephone polls in the city, they are not on all of them. For residential usage, optical transmission is converted to coaxial cable to the home. This means in a neighborhood, bandwidth is ultimately shared, which is why Comcast’s packages claim speeds “up to” a given speed. However, a true optical network to the home, which a community network could provide, should provide a huge amount of bandwidth and higher access speeds, both uploading and downloading. It could be architected to provide a guaranteed rate of speed. Comcast uploading speed varies, but is typically 5-10 megabit per second (5-10 Mbps).
- As a business with a monopoly, Comcast has no incentive to deliver value to its subscribers. It has plenty of incentive to deliver maximum profits to its shareholders, and it shows. You have likely experienced how they deliver this “value”: long wait times to get a service call, network slowdowns (particularly during peak usage) and download rates frequently well below the “up to” rate you are charged.
- With the FCC’s relaxation of net neutrality rules, since June 2018 Comcast is free to limit content, slow or stop the delivery of content it does not want to serve, or speed up the delivery of content from providers that purchase this quality of service. They are also free to sell information about your Internet usage to other entities including commercial interests and the government. It can also raise rates as it chooses with no oversight or regulation. It’s not considered a public utility, like gas or electricity. With virtually no competition, there is no reason not to.
What about Verizon FiOS?
Verizon FiOS is available in a few very limited neighborhoods in Northampton. Verizon does not plan to expand this service city-wide to compete with Comcast for high-speed internet services. They see their opportunity for profits primarily in the wireless arena. If they offered FiOS across Northampton they would incur considerable costs and because they would be competing with Comcast they would probably have to offer lower rates. This is apparently judged not profitable enough for them. No other private sector entities have expressed interest in providing competitive high-speed internet services. Which leaves businesses and residents of Northampton with Comcast or to build our own better, less expensive citizen-centric network.
What about 5G?
Cellular networks are beginning to test 5G networks. These networks promise much faster mobile connectivity, comparable to what you get at home. In addition, you could use these networks with laptop and desktop computers at home, if you are within range. Speeds of 100mbs (megabits per second) are possible.
Some important things to note about 5G:
- The range for 5G networks is relatively limited and some spectra are affected by structures through which the signal must penetrate. In dense urban areas signal quality could be variable. More rural parts of Northampton would not be able to use 5G because it would not be cost effective over larger distances.
- It is not currently available in Northampton and only exists in a few test markets. When deployed, it will likely be deployed in dense, urban areas first. Northampton is many years away, at best, from having 5G as an option.
- When available, you will need devices that can use 5G technology.
- Since it uses cellular frequencies and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctions off these frequencies to commercial companies for the highest bid, these services will probably be available only from commercial companies. So when deployed you will have to use a cellular service like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, or some company which resells their frequencies. The City of Northampton could probably not create its own 5G network, at least not without leasing spectra from a cellular provider, so it’s hard to see how a community network could provide affordable 5G service, if it can deploy it at all.
- While 5G would introduce real high-speed competition in Northampton, the cost per Mb is high, particularly if providers do as they generally do now and charge by the bandwidth you use.
- Since 5G cannot provide speeds greater than 100Mbps to a single device, it’s significantly slower than most community networks where 100Mbps is something of a minimum speed. Most community networks provide 1Gbps: ten times as much bandwidth per second.
- The time it takes to send and receive signals (latency) is considerably longer than it would be with a fiber-optic network. The effect of this latency is sluggish Internet response times.
- Cellular frequencies typically use shared bandwidth, so lots of simultaneous use often results in slower speeds. In a properly managed fiber optic network, bandwidth would be at a consistent speed.
- Technologies change. 5G will be used for a while, to eventually be replaced by 6G, 7G etc. The lifetime of a fiber network is far greater.
What are the advantages of a Northampton community network?
- Lower prices. a community network would offer both higher speeds and lower prices than commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast. Both businesses and residents would benefit from reduced communications costs. These costs could be recaptured for more productive uses. It’s not unrealistic to expect you would save a third or more with a community network. Considering how vital affordable internet access is to people today, particularly those with modest or low incomes, a community network would make communication costs more certain and affordable with less likelihood of large cost fluctuations.
- True fiber to the home. Potentially such a network would offer true Fiber to the Home (FTTH) and to Northampton businesses. This would be a quantum leap in available bandwidth with potential network speeds of 1gigabit per second (1Gbps) or higher, dramatically reducing downloading and uploading times. Fiber networks are also extremely reliable as they are not subject to electromagnetic interference. They also have greater upgrade potential making the network more future-proof than existing or alternative options.
- Choice. Effectively, Comcast has no competition for high-speed internet, which means customers pay more for their services and get less than they would with competition, not to mention poor customer service.
- True net neutrality. Comcast is opposed to net neutrality, although it claims it has no plans to block or rate-limit sites at this time. A community network could require net neutrality, especially if it is governed by its citizens.
- Privacy. Comcast is driven by profits. If they can find ways to make money from your Internet behaviors, they will – including selling that information to third parties. A community network could have rules about privacy baked into the network – requiring a court order to access your personal information.
- Data as a utility. What do we mean by a utility? We mean that we believe that the Internet is no longer optional. Robust and high-speed Internet today is as vital as water, sewage, electricity and gas. People of modest means in particular need Internet access at affordable rates. As such, it should be treated as a utility, overseen by elected officials accountable to the citizens, and provided as a robust service at minimal cost. The Internet should be tuned to meet the needs of its users, not Comcast’s shareholders. Subsidies should be offered to the lowest income residents.
- Decoupling data access from data services. We believe there is a great advantage from decoupling data access from data services. While some users may like Comcast’s Double and Triple Play offerings, providing Internet as a neutral service allows you to choose any provider for services like streaming movies, live content and telephony. A net-neutral network would ensure that no content provider has an advantage, evening the playing field, increasing competition and likely reducing costs too. Even with a community network, you could get Cable TV from Comcast as a separate service. Note that a community network could provide internet telephone service too, as some communities like Leverett and Westfield do. Currently Comcast has the exclusive license to provide cable TV services within Northampton. When the current contract ends however, if a community network is in place, this could be something a community network could provide too.
- Citizen oversight. Companies like Comcast are responsible to shareholders. Customers are seen as profit centers. A community network is accountable to its customers and to a local governing board that oversees it.
- Flexibility. A community network has the ability to be more agile, offering tailored services to meet local needs. For example, Comcast’s upload speeds are quite slow. This is because of their architecture and the technology that they are using. A community network on a fiber-optic network could offer much more flexible upload/download packages. With Comcast, it’s very hard to get upload speeds greater than 10Mbps. This makes things like sharing videos on Facebook or Instagram slow and tedious.
- Future growth. For a community to thrive in the future, a reliable high-speed network is practically a requirement. A city that understands this by providing the data services its citizens need is likely to prosper in the future, attracting new businesses and potentially more tax revenues.
- Consistent bandwidth. Perhaps you may have noticed that Comcast’s network often slows in the evening. This is because a lot of people stream services like Netflix in the evening. Since the bandwidth is shared, if there is congestion on the network, the overall experience degrades for everyone on the same shared circuit. Unsurprisingly, Comcast markets its packages promoting rates “up to” a given limit. A community network could be engineered to deliver bandwidth at a consistent rate.
- Consistent delivery. End-to-end fiber networks are extremely reliable. They can handle more bandwidth than copper cables. Data travels farther over fiber than copper. Fiber optic cables are lighter than copper cables. Fiber is more secure because it’s more difficult to hack and easier to monitor for hacking. Fiber is less affected by temperature fluctuations. Fiber is less susceptible to moisture damage. Fiber cables last longer than copper cables before degrading. Fiber cables are not susceptible to electromagnetic radiation like copper cables. For all of these reasons fiber cables are less likely to experience operational issues than copper coaxial cable based systems.
- Support for Community Media. Over the years, Northampton Open Media (NOM, formerly NCTV) has become a vital part of our community, providing transparency into local government. A municipal network can provide funding to sustain NOM, whose funding has been eroding due to subsidy cutbacks.
Can I get Cable TV on a Northampton community network?
If you mean, can you get live TV like CNN or ESPN then yes, if you subscribe to a streaming service that offers these sorts of live channels.
For example, DirecTV Now, SlingTV and YouTube TV provide both CNN and ESPN live streams as well as many other channels. Comcast even offers a streaming service like these companies do, for people who get their Internet from another company, but like Comcast’s TV offerings.
Just as Cable TV is not provided free by Comcast, you need to pay an alternative TV provider like those listed above in order to get cable channels like CNN and ESPN..
Potentially a community network could bundle popular channels into packages you could subscribe to. Currently the City has an agreement with Comcast that allows it to provide exclusive “cable TV” services to Northampton residences. So, it might not be possible for a community network to offer this as a network service until the Comcast contract expires in 2026. But as the Internet is platform neutral, there would be nothing to stop you from subscribing to streaming services like those listed above that offer content similar to cable TV.
All local TV stations can be viewed for free by connecting your TV to a high-definition antenna. Antennas on Mount Tom come in very clearly, as do most content served from Springfield. More expensive antennas can often bring in content from stations even further away such as Hartford. You can get an idea of station signal strength in Northampton from this site.
In reality, cable TV is dying. Comcast knows this. With time, it is likely that all TV stations will stream their content for free over the Internet. Streaming makes it easier to be choosier, allowing you to pay for the content you want as opposed to paying for hundreds of channels you will never use.
What progress have you made?
During the November 2021 municipal elections, 91.3% of voters approved a question to allow the city to create a municipal light plant. This is a legal entity required by the commonwealth used by municipalities for creating a community network for internet services. Incoming mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra is making creating a community network one of her top priorities, and is working closely with outgoing mayor David Narkewicz to smoothly transition actions that have been underway for years.
A municipal broadband survey has been completed. You can hear Mayor Narkewicz’s preliminary summary here. Twenty-five percent of residents returned the survey, and municipal broadband was widely endorsed. The survey is being run by Design Nine.
Based on the overwhelmingly positive results of the survey (more than 95% support from those who responded), Mayor Narkewicz authorized the second phase of the study by Design Nine: a study to estimate the costs to construct, maintain and finance a municipal network. We eagerly await the results of this study.
What would it take to create a community network in Northampton?
With voter approval of a municipal light plant, the next step is for the City Council to approve a plan for its creation. The feasibility study underway by Design Nine to estimate the costs involved is expected to be completed and reviewed by the city before any plan is discussed and voted on by the City Council. It is likely the issue will be debated and voted on in 2022.
How would a community network be financed?
That would be up to the City Council. It could in theory pay for a network out of pocket, but such an endeavor would probably exceed any Rainy Day Fund the city has. It’s possible that some portion of the network could be financed by federal or state grants. The city is currently conducting a survey for how to use $21 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. You can find the survey here. Question 15 on the survey lists an option to use funds for a municipal broadband network. Please take the survey and let the city know your thoughts on how to use the grant funding. The city also may issue a bond to cover all or partial construction costs.
In our discussions with Mayor Narkewicz, he said that if a community network is built, it should be self-sustaining, so it would have no net impact on the city’s budget. The most likely funding option would be the sale of municipal bonds. Also, most likely, subscribers to the community network would pay off the municipal bond, similar to how users in the city’s E.J. Gare parking garage pay to park, and their charges are used to pay off municipal bonds. Ultimately though, if there are not enough subscribers to the network, the City is liable for paying back the bond. Hence, it makes no sense to start a community network without a thorough study of its likely costs and likely subscription rate by city residents and businesses. Based on those we have talked to, you need at least a 30% subscription rate for a community network to be self-financing. We think that is easily achievable, especially given the overwhelming support demonstrated by the results of the Design Nine survey earlier this year.
How much would a community network cost?
At this point we can only ballpark the cost. Design Nine’s engineering study will give a more detailed estimate.
We did speak with the general manager of Whip City Fiber in Westfield. He believes that it would be around $10M – $15M dollars. A local representative of Nokia told us he thought the final could would be less than $10M. These estimates were given several years ago and may be higher now due to normal cost increases over time. Either way, it’s not a small outlay, obviously. The proposed City budget for fiscal year 2021 is $121M.
There are all sorts of factors that can affect the cost of the network. One of the oddest ones has to do with existing telephone poles. Poles that have no more room on them would need to have taller poles placed if community network cables need to go on them, and that gets very expensive. We’ve looked around and so far haven’t seen many situations where the poles are at capacity. Telephone poles are typically shared among different services such as electric, telephone, cable tv and internet and municipal emergency communications equipment. These different cables on telephone poles must all be one feet apart from each other, so larger poles might be needed in some places to accommodate a fiber optic community network..
Cables could also be strung or buried on land the city owns, such as bike paths and parks.
It’s possible that the proposed fiber optic backbone around the city could use a free right of way granted to the City for its emergency services and monitoring. If this strategy is viable, not having to pay to rent pole space could substantially reduce costs.
How hard is it to create a community network?
There are some examples of failures of community networks. Locally, Greenfield’s line-of-site wireless network seems to have been canned, and the town is now working on creating a proper municipal network. Greenfield though is the exception, and so far, all other local municipal networks studied have been successful, or appear likely to be successful when fully deployed.
The good news is that the technology is commoditized and standardized, so it’s hardly a mystery. There are many competent engineering firms that can install and manage community networks, or the city could do it in-house. Based on our research, most failures are a result of going for inexpensive solutions, using unproven vendors or basic mis-management. Since Northampton is a city it has more resources than towns, as well as a Chief Information Officer and IT department. These factors along with the city’s track record for being open to input on its municipal network plans, bode well for the future success of the project.
How can I get involved?
At this point, with voters having approved a question allowing the city to create a municipal light plant, voters should advocate with their ward and at-large city councilors to create a city municipal light plant and authorize a fiscally sound plan to create the network for residents and businesses.
Last updated December 14, 2021