The Town That Made Its Own Internet

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In Greenfield, Massachusetts, 40 percent of the town’s residents didn’t have access to Internet, so the mayor hired someone to build a cheap system of its own.

By Rick Paulas

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Greenfield, Massachusetts. (Photo: Public Domain)

Greenfield, Massachusetts, is a small town nestled near the Connecticut River, 90 miles west of Boston and about 15 miles south of the Vermont border. It has around 18,000 residents and 580 businesses spread throughout its 25 square miles. It’s predominantly white, claims more independent voters than any other political affiliation, has a median household income of $48,442 (below the United States’ average by about $5,000), and over 10 percent of the town lives below the poverty line.

But come July 1, the town will become its own Internet Service Provider.

“We’re in a world now where if you do not have digital communication, you’re in a big rut,” says Dan Kelley, president of the Kelley Management Group, who was hired by the city four years ago to oversee the project.

Before the project began in November of 2011, Kelley estimates roughly 60 percent of the town had home Internet access through Comcast/Verizon, while the remaining 40 percent went without, either due to monetary limitations or lack of necessity. That changed when Kelley was approached by the town’s mayor, Bill Martin, and told to get as much of the town wired with as much bandwidth as possible, no matter where they lived within the community’s borders.

“The one edict the mayor insisted on was this would not cost taxpayers a dime.”

“That’s a tall task,” Kelley says. “We have an urban center, but most of it is very rural, so the cost to build fiber to every home and build out infrastructure is very high.”

The first step was getting a sense of the engineering challenges ahead. Kelley went to the town’s various businesses to figure out their broadband needs, and what they’re planning to do in the future. “My philosophy is, business first, technology second,” he says. These discussions gave them a lay of the land. “Our preliminary engineering suggests we’re going to build anywhere between 80 and 100 miles of fiber.” The second step was educating the community, which included alerting unconnected residents to the Internet’s value and offering classes on how to navigate it.

The third part was financing the operation.

“The one edict the mayor insisted on was this would not cost taxpayers a dime,” Kelley says.

How do you perform a multi-million dollar public buildout without tax dough? Kelley and company sought and received a “revenue anticipation bond,” which will be re-paid with the money the project earns. (Residents will not pay anything for the buildout but will have the option of buying into the service once it’s up.) After that’s paid off, money earned will be used for maintenance, with any profits “reinvested in the community,” according to the plan’s website.

But before construction commenced, there was an additional hurdle to scale: They needed to get approval from the town itself. Last October, Kelley’s consortium ran a free Wi-Fi pilot through two of the town’s corridors — one business, one residential — and allowed all Greenfield citizens with Wi-Fi-capable devices to utilize it. The pilot had a dual purpose, meant to prove that the technology worked, and also provide residents an incentive to vote on the project proposal.

Last November, residents approved the proposal with an overwhelming 82.5 percent “yes” vote to institute the service under the title Greenfield Community Energy & Technology Advisory Committee (GCET).

How does all this help close the digital divide? The largest hurdle to bringing Internet to those without — as nearly every member of every digital divide non-profit has pointed out — is price. Want more people online? Drop the cost. And with the town’s introduction of GreenLight Internet, the cost will be lowered dramatically for town residents.

GCET has plans to collaborate with the town’s school district on a no-cost learning center to teach computer literacy to the community.

Mobile services will be offered for $9.95 a month for unlimited data, meaning that homes which qualify for the $9.25 a month Lifeline subsidy will pay less than a dollar. (Kelley has said that the GCET may simply waive this cost to those who qualify for the subsidy.) Meanwhile, cost for home Internet service will be tiered between $24.95 and $49.95 a month, depending on the upload/download speed each resident wants. Kelley claims this constitutes a drop in price of around 40 percent for those who currently use the Comcast/Verizon option.

“Pricing is low because it is a cost-based service, and GCET is a not-for-profit,” Kelley says. “Our customers are also our owners.”

This price drop has already allowed new users to come online. Among them, “a retired woman living alone who was gifted an iPad from her children,” Kelley says. “We had to teach her how to use the iPad first.” There are also many residents who have never had home Internet service who are waiting for the buildout to reach their neighborhoods. “Think about where we are, which is a rural community with poor telephone service,” he says. “Now you’re always connected, [especially in the case of] emergencies. You don’t have to go in the far west corner of your house to make a phone call. You’re always connected.” In addition, Kelley says that GCET has plans to collaborate with the town’s school district on a no-cost learning center to teach computer literacy to the community.

How translatable is this project to other municipalities or regions? Greenfield has a few things going for it, certainly. It’s relatively small, so the buildout doesn’t have to incorporate a wide new expanse. It also has easy-to-navigate terrain; there are no mountains or swaths of heavy vegetation that engineers must cut through. Finally, it has the ability to hook into the “middle-mile” broadband infrastructure that has been built by the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which allows Greenfield to connect directly to the access point in Boston.

While each of these elements are important, Kelley says the biggest reason the plan in Greenfield has worked is because of the buy-in commitment made by the town’s residents. “You have to have the commitment that we’re going to do this, I need it done, get it done,” Kelley says, claiming that similar projects he’s worked on have been hampered by some combination of local politics or over-exuberant bureaucracy. “[The other communities] could not get out of their own way.”

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