As we have discussed before on this site, the town of Leverett, MA is in the middle of building out a fiber network to its entire community. Leverett’s experience can serve as a good reference for Princeton in terms of what is working and what could be improved as we plan and structure our network build out. Episode 113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast features an interview with Leverett Select Board member Peter d’Errico. In it, Peter discusses the town’s need for a fiber solution, the role of the “municipal light plant” law, and the structure of the financing and prices for subscribers. In addition to downloading the podcast, you can alternatively read the full transcript.
As Princeton moves forward to the design phase of a proposed high-speed fiber optic network, residents must decide how they will vote on a motion to approve the project later this year. Proponents of the plan understand the importance of in-home access to fast, affordable Internet, low-cost telephone service, and high performance streaming video capabilities. Opponents say we do not need access to the Internet or that we should wait a few years for something better and cheaper. Others believe it’s a poor investment and a financial burden we can’t afford, one that will only saddle taxpayers with a hefty bill.
Some of those who oppose the project point to a search engine generated list of public municipal broadband projects around the country that have failed or are in serious financial jeopardy, making the assumption that the same scenario will most certainly occur in Princeton. We believe that those attempting to connect the dots from failed networks to Princeton’s plan, which is still in its early stages, lack a full understanding of the sequence of events that led to these failures in other communities.
Perhaps the major concern that has been raised over the proposed Princeton Broadband initiative is the question of how successful other municipal funded fiber network projects have been around the country. Opponents, for example, point to the problems associated with the public fiber network buildouts in Provo, Utah and Burlington, VT and conclude that, if those initiatives were problematic, then the same issues will arise if Princeton tries to build out a fiber network.
There are, however, fundamental differences between Princeton and these other cities, so much so that a comparison is, to borrow an old adage, like comparing apples to oranges.
Princeton Broadband Initiative Is Not an Overbuild
Provo and Burlington are poster child examples of building a municipal funded fiber network in a location that already has established high speed internet providers. The industry term for this situation is called an overbuild, or the introduction of a new service in an already crowded market. As George Ou notes, both Provo and Burlington were classic overbuilds:
The problem with all these failed municipal fiber endeavors is that they were all founded on bad assumptions. They all that tried to enter a saturated telecom/cable market under they assumption that the current providers weren’t serving the market.
In contrast, Princeton doesn’t have Verizon FIOS or highspeed cable from Comcast. In fact, Princeton is classified as an “unserved” town by the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative. A municipal funded Princeton fiber network, therefore, can’t be an overbuild by definition because there are no existing high speed broadband network builds in town to build on top of.
Princeton Broadband Initiative is Not Subscriber Dependent
Provo and Burlington planned to pay for the network buildout based on subscriber revenue. So, in each case, planners made optimistic assumptions on the adoption rate of the new service. But, because they built into a crowded market, these adoption rates proved unrealistic, causing funding problems for the services.
In contrast, the funding of the proposed Princeton Broadband initiative is not dependent on the actual adoption rate of the new service. If approved by voters, the buildout would be funded 100% through a bond. In other words, the cost of the buildout would be known and fixed before construction begins, and the funding would be 100% ready before construction begins. Therefore, there’s no possibility of a financial “fiasco” on a buildout like the subscriber-dependent plans of Provo and Burlington.
Reflecting on Burlington, George Ou concludes:
The lesson in this fiasco is that there is a right way and wrong way to build a successful municipal network and Burlington Telecom is an example of what not to do. If a community has no high speed Internet services and no commercial operators already providing service or planning to provide service, there is a role for the community and government to step in to fill in the demand.
Therefore, as we consider a municipally funded fiber network buildout for Princeton, let’s be sure to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Provo and Burlington, we are not.
One of the common questions that we get asked quite frequently is whether or not the idea of building a townwide fiber optic network is a “bleeding edge” solution or something that is “tried & true” and done before by other communities.
In fact, as the map indicates, there are dozens of examples of towns that have already built a municipal fiber optic network and are operating it successfully today.
You can find out details on many of these community networks by clicking on the map, which will take you to an interactive map compiled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that monitors and tracks municipally owned networks.
But, we don’t have to just turn to long-distance examples, such as Kansas City or Saltville, VA. Consider three examples of communities just around the corner from Princeton:
- Westfield, MA installed its still-used network in the early 1990s and has subsequently paid off all installation costs.
- Shrewsbury, MA has been operating a municipal fiber network for over a decade.
- Rindge, NH has recently finished their fiber network and are now taking subscribers.
Many other Massachusetts towns, such as Leverett, are at various points in the process of planning fiber networks to connect to the Mass Broadband system.