Summary of Town Hearing #1 on Broadband Internet

While we have the second information-only town hearing on the broadband internet initiative this week (Wed, April 24 at 10am), we wanted to provide an informal, unofficial summary of the discussion from the first town hearing earlier this month. These notes are provided below.

April 9, 2013

Town Hall Annex

Number of Residents Attending: approximately 25

Number of Broadband Committee Members Attending: 6

Stan Moss called the hearing of the Princeton Broadband Committee (herein referred to as the BBC) to order at 7:01 pm. Stan presented an overview of the project, which was followed by questions from the attending residents.

A summary of questions and comments received:

1. General questions on whether Princeton could work with a major telecom company (Verizon, Comcast etc.) rather than build their own network.  The BBC explained why the major carriers are saying no to Princeton and pointed out the trend in the growth of municipal networks nationwide, including Shrewsbury as a local example.

2. Several people took issue with using Leverett as an example of a Municipal Broadband success story, since they have not finished their network deployment.  The BBC expressed the opinion that Leverett has been a good model for the planning  phases of the project so far, but in general agreed that more reference data could be presented.  The BBC took the action item to provide additional info from municipal projects that have completed their networks.

3. Questions on what makes it attractive for a commercial ISP to manage a system like what has been proposed in Princeton, given that it is unattractive for a commercial telecom to provide service in town.  It was explained that for the ISP company it would be a profitable venture, since they would not incur the cost of building the network and would be able to begin operations with an immediate subscriber base.  The BBC commented that we expect a competitive bidding environment for ISP selection which should put the town on favorable negotiating terms.

4. Several questions relating to who is going to pay for  repair and maintenance of the service, and how consumers would interact with them.  It was explained that maintenance of the network would be contracted to a service provider and paid for from the monthly subscriber fee.  Exact details of this nature would be worded in the final network and ISP contracts, which would not be completed until after the network has been built.

5. Multiple people expressed concerns regarding repair costs in the event of a catastrophic storm situation, such as the ice storm of 2009.  Questions were raised about whether a fiber optic network would be eligible for Federal disaster relief, if the network could be insured, as well as how long it would take to repair.  The BBC indicated that a disaster plan would be created as part of the project.  Our initial research suggests that a fiber optic network such as the one proposed would be eligible for federal aid in the event of a disaster, but the BBC took took the action item to confirm this and to do more detailed investigations into private insurance options as part of the plan.

6. Questions on whether we had a business plan, and if not, why not?  The BBC responded that bringing on someone to create a business plan is underway.

7. Question on if public funding could be used to pay for the project rather than through the taxes.  The BBC indicated that we have explored federal grants for last-mile telecom, however the major funding for these projects was provided through the American Reinvestment Act of 2010 and those funds have subsequently been exhausted.  The committee would continue to research public funding options to mitigate the costs where possible.  It was also noted that the MBI project to bring fiber service to the town border was an example of a publicly funded project.

8. Related question on whether we could use a financing model where only the subscribers to the system paid for it, rather than all the residents of the town.  The BBC commented that such a model had been explored, but was deemed not viable due to several factors, including the inability to fund the design and installation via an incremental subscriber model, and the difficulties with attracting an ISP to run the network if only a portion of the potential residential base were available when operations began.

9. Question on why residents should be asked to pay a tax increase for a service that they do not plan on using.  Although 97% of the town indicated they would be interested in such a service, the BBC recognized that there will be some who will have to pay a tax increase even if they do not choose to use the service if the project is approved.   A comparison was made to other town services that are paid for via taxes such as the schools, senior center, specific road projects etc. that are not universally used by all residents.    The BBC also took the action item for the next hearing to present some relevant data on the positive impact the project will have to property values that may be of interest to residents who may not be interested in the service.

10. General concern that the Broadband Committee does not have a good handle on the costs involved for the project, and are asking residents to approve a project without specific numbers.  It was explained that in this planning phase of the project, the BBC did not expect to have exact numbers for the project cost but had presented estimates for discussion purposes only.  The BBC also reiterated that the upcoming may Network Design item on the town warrant represented money to be spent on an engineering design to provide a detailed project estimate, and did not represent a commitment to build the network; the public would have a detailed design and estimate prior to voting on the project and any associated borrowing.   It was also noted that the accepted bidder for the installation would be bound to the accepted contract under Mass law, and would be required to carry a bond to pay for costs if they were unable to complete the project.

11. General concern that the town has undertaken other municipal projects in the recent past, such as the windmills, with unsatisfactory and/or unforeseen results and therefore should not be considering another public project.  The BBC pointed out the differences in the planning and approach of past projects undertaken by PMLD versus those initiated directly by the town, including early and frequent public involvement, open meetings and hearings, research on other towns undertaking similar programs, detailed engineering design plans, use of an open bidding process for vendors, and so on.  The BBC took the action item to summarize these in a subsequent hearing.

12. Concern over the existence of underground lines in town, some direct-buried without conduits, and the impact to overall installation costs and/or costs to the specific resident with underground service.  The BBC indicated that installation to the home, including underground service where it exists, would be part of the town-wide installation plan and would not be an additional cost to the subscriber.  The BBC indicated that the engineering firm providing the network design would survey the town, including the underground service portions, and take them into account as part of the installation estimate.   The BBC opinion based on initial survey is that the overall number of road miles with underground service was small, and that in most cases conduit with pulls would be available.

The meeting concluded at 8:45 pm and it was announced that it is scheduled to reopen on 4/24 at 10 am.

Respectfully submitted,
Ned Utzig & Philip O’Brien
Princeton Broadband Committee

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