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Northampton, Mass., Voters Open Way for Muni Broadband

Northampton voters on Tuesday widely approved a ballot measure that will allow the city to pursue municipally owned Internet, paving the way for local leaders to take the next step in a project already approved by the City Council.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — Northampton voters on Tuesday widely approved a ballot measure that will allow the city to pursue municipally-owned internet, paving the way for local leaders to take the next step in a project already approved by the City Council.

The ballot measure’s passage will permit the city to build a “municipal light plant.” Massachusetts law requires communities to use this language to describe the creation of locally-owned utilities. In other cities, that may mean building an actual power plant for a publicly-owned electric company. In Northampton, it simply means the city will now be able to set up publicly-available internet.

City leaders bemoaned the “arcane” language the question was mandated to be asked in, but the measure was necessary. The city council had already passed the question twice, as it was required to do. Then measure then had to go to the voters, who approved it with more than 90% support on Tuesday. The final vote tally was 7,426 in favor, 705 against.

Now, Northampton will have the option to set up publicly-owned internet, if it chooses. The city is still in the process of studying the feasibility and cost of the program. A study released last week of the city’s current internet options questioned why Northampton did not already have a fiber optic internet network, as other cities of similar size do.

If Northampton leaders choose to pursue public internet, they will create a municipally-owned company that would compete with Xfinity, Verizon and other internet service providers. Other cities already have similar services. Some city councilors have said doing so could lower costs of internet.

Karen Foster, Ward 2 councilor, said in an interview that the pandemic has proved that every home needs affordable, reliable internet.

“This past year-and-a-half has really highlighted that internet is not a ‘nice to have’ anymore,” Foster said. “It’s really a public utility.”

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