Cost and adherence to net neutrality principles are making municipal Internet plans an attractive option for local customers.
(TNS) — A good 80 percent of Frank Susi's graphics design business is conducted online, including communicating with clients, promoting his firm, even buying office supplies, he said.
Business is thriving, thanks in part to the Internet. So he's watching and waiting to see whether the recent repeal of net neutrality – a 2015 federal regulation that required Internet service providers to give equal access and speed to everything on the Internet – will slow things down. If it does, Susi said, he plans to drop Verizon as his Internet service provider.
Net neutrality is the belief that all Internet service providers should allow access at the same speed for all content, regardless of where it comes from. Consumer advocates have said the Federal Communications Commission's decision to reverse net neutrality regulations will pave the way for Internet industry behemoths like Comcast and Verizon to charge more for access to certain websites and reduce speed for those unwilling to pay.
Most consumers have no choice of Internet service, but Susi has options because his business is in Braintree, one of only 328 communities nationwide and 14 in Massachusetts with a municipal Internet, something advocates say may be the answer to open Internet in the post-net neutrality world.
"(The Internet) is extremely essential," Susi said, "From email and searching for products to ordering online."
On the South Shore, Braintree excluded, most residents and businesses can choose between Comcast or Verizon for Internet service. It's a limited choice, but more than what's available to most Americans. A 2015 White House study found three out of every four Americans had access to only one high-speed Internet provider.
BELD – the Braintree Electric Light Department - gives residents in that town another broadband choice, along with gas, cable and electric service. It also gives consumers a voice in whether the company maintains the principles of net neutrality going forward.
"If Netflix worked poorly, BELD customers would call the board, the mayor, the council, and policy would change very quickly," said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minnesota think-tank that advocates for local control. He said customers of municipally-owned Internet service providers like BELD are at an advantage amid the mounting uncertainty of how providers will deliver content in a world without net neutrality regulations.
The repeal of net neutrality means Internet providers are free to arbitrarily block content, create "fast lanes" for websites willing to pay more and reduce speeds for certain customers based on their browsing - a technique known as "throttling" used to manage the amount a bandwidth a particular customer uses.
But BELD General Manger Bill Bottiggi said local customers wouldn't put up with those practices. "We don't throttle, we don't sell fast lanes, and we won't. As a municipal utility, we are here for the benefit of our residents, not for a board of shareholders," he said.
Pro-industry advocates say fears of content blocking and speed throttling by big-name Internet service providers are just that - fears; companies like Comcast and Verizon have repeatedly voiced commitment to an open Internet. But Mitchell said without net neutrality regulations, nothing holds them to it.
An open Internet is one reason his organization supports municipal networks. "They are far less likely to engage in discrimination of content," he said
Town-owned utility companies are non-profit, which means they are exempt from commercial property tax and state and federal taxes on profits, savings they can pass along to customers.
Susi pays roughly $132 a month for a Verizon Fios phone and high-speed Internet package; a similar package would cost $120 through BELD.
A January study of 40 community-owned broadband networks by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University found local Internet is consistently cheaper than its private counterparts and even when it's not, it drives down prices offered by the big-name competitors. The study found pricing for broadband service was also notably more transparent, consistent and less confusing from locally-owned companies. BELD offers its customers a cheat-sheet on fees and services that is available on its website.
Municipal service isn't for everyone, despite the cost savings. Jennifer Dolan, who runs a web-based business from her Braintree home, said she needs the download speed she can only get from Fios Gigabit Internet, at 860 megabits per second.
BELD download speed tops out at about 300 megabits per second, which Bottiggi says is plenty for a household of half a dozen people using devices simultaneously.
Networks like BELD's are exceedingly rare. Nationwide only 328 communities have some form of locally-owned broadband or fiber-cable networks, according to data from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
In Massachusetts, two of the 14 towns with municipally-owned Internet, Reading and Springfield, have what industry insiders call "dark fiber" networks, meaning the infrastructure is there, but no service is available.
There aren't likely to be more cities or towns getting into the Internet business, primarily because of the cost.
BELD Broadband, which went live in 1998, reaches more than 2,700 households and businesses in Braintree, but department administrators says customers are lucky the infrastructure was built in the early days of broadband.
"You wouldn't do it today because you wouldn't be able to keep up," BELD Broadband Division Manager Jack Orpen said.
BELD Broadband, which is run as a separate company from its electric division, is a break-even business. It takes in about $5.3 million a year, with about $1 million left in its operating fund, money that is invested in system upgrades to keep up with bandwidth demands and the explosion of high-definition video.
BELD has no debt and it's electric division contributes $1.3 million annually to town revenue under a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement Bottiggi said.
It would cost a city or town roughly $2,000 per household or business to create a municipal broadband network, Mitchell said.
"We like to say it's in the same ball park as what governments put into sports stadiums. It's cheaper than sewer and water systems and cheaper than electricity, but still more than what (towns) are used to spending," he said.
Still, at least one Massachusetts community is trying to expand its options. Chicopee plans to roll out broadband Internet service this year, first to businesses then to residents. Its phased approach, Mitchell said, works to reduce up-front costs to taxpayers.
"There's a lot more interest in examining options right now," Mitchell said.
©2018 The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.