Wilbraham, Massachusetts Takes First Step Toward City-Owned Fiber Build

Wilbraham, Massachusetts officials are taking the first steps toward building a city-owned open access fiber network with an eye on boosting local competition and delivering affordable, next-gen broadband access to long-neglected local residents.

Having issued a request for proposal earlier this year with the help of EntryPoint Networks, city officials are currently identifying which company they’ll hire to deploy fiber to the city of 14,749.

They say a formal plan to present to voters – as well as a total projected network cost estimate – is expected by October.

“We have no intention of raising taxes or utilizing tax dollars,” Wilbraham Broadband Advisory Committee Chair Tom Newton tells local news outlet The Reminder.

Newton says Wilbraham is hopeful the new network will be primarily financed through an enterprise fund, similar to how the town handles the cost of water and sewer. Depending on take rates, the city is also hopeful the network will be sustainable primarily through subscriber fees. How that all works out in practice remains to be seen.

Map of WilbrahamMap of Wilbraham courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Officials are hopeful to keep the total price per household around $60 a month. A project FAQ states the city wants to deliver symmetrical 20 megabit per second, 100 Mbps, 250 Mbps, 500 Mbps, and symmetrical 1 gigabit per second service tiers to residents.

Like most U.S. communities, Wilbraham doesn’t see much in the way of broadband competition. Broadband access in the city is primarily dominated by Charter Communications (Spectrum), which has some of the lowest customer satisfaction ratings of any company – in any industry – in the U.S. A number of residents remain stuck on aging Verizon DSL lines.

This lack of competition results in high prices, spotty coverage, slow speeds, and substandard customer service. City officials are clear that they want to build an open access network with an eye on boosting competition and lowering broadband rates.

“We believe these goals and objectives to be fully attainable through the deployment of an advanced fiber optic network; one featuring on an “open access” infrastructure, thereby providing innovative service delivery options for any type of telecommunications service(s),” the city’s website states. “This network, and the service providers it will attract, will ultimately empower subscribers with vastly increased online speeds, reliability, variety and options versus that of any existing telecommunications providers.”

Apparently referencing West Springfield, Massachusetts’ recent $30 million plan to build a fiber network with the assistance of Westfield Gas and Electric’s broadband subsidiary Whip City Fiber, Newton told The Reminder that Wilbraham’s direct city ownership approach will be “night and day to what other towns are doing.”

“When a town opts to partner with a company like Whip City Fiber there’s really no difference between them and Comcast or Charter,” Newton claimed.

While Wilbraham’s approach to foster competition by building an open access network is laudable, the idea that there’s little or no difference between the offerings of a locally-owned utility and a giant regional private monopoly provider like Comcast or Charter is a bit off the mark.

First, there is no guarantee that multiple independent ISPs will join the network given the relatively small size of the market. And secondly, given that Wilbraham will be looking for ISP partners to populate its open access fiber network, throwing too much competitive shade at other local creative broadband alternatives may not be the best choice.

Still, Wilbraham officials say that bids for the network were due May 7 as EntryPoint Networks is currently helping the city determine the best build partner – and financing structure – for the future network.

This article was originally posted by Community Broadband Networks Initiative Institute for Local Self Reliance on May 20, 2024, and is reprinted with permission.