March Infrastructure: Tech in the time of Corona

The Infrastructure Committee’s March meeting was held virtually through Zoom, hosted by Open Cape. Meeting guests Courtney Bird and Peter Cook reported on progress of the Falmouth Community Network.

Falmouth Community Network started a little over a year ago with the goal of providing an alternative to internet service offered in Falmouth. Residents of Falmouth approached the Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC) , which voted to support a feasibility study. The group hired to conduct the study, CCG Consulting, undertook a phone survey of all registered voters in Falmouth.

Some of the results of the survey were shared with the Infrastructure Committee:

  • 88% of Falmouth survey respondents have traditional cable TV (79% with Comcast) vs. national average of just under 70%
  • Only 4.5% in Falmouth claimed to be cord-cutters. Estimates are 10% to 15% nationally. CCG predicted that more Falmouth homes will be dropping traditional cable TV in the future
  • Falmouth residents reported an average of $183 per month for triple play services whereas most communities average $150/month
  • 26.5% of respondents said that somebody in the home uses the internet to work from home.
  • 51% experienced an outage in the last year, 45% reported outages of 1 day and 45% had outages of multiple days. 53% found these outages very inconvenient, 63% noticed slowdowns in the last year, and 64% found the slowdowns annoying or bothersome
  • 27% are unhappy with download speeds, 33% are not happy with customer service, 36% are not satisfied with reliability
  • 70% of respondents support the idea of getting better internet access in Falmouth
  • 92% would like to see more competition: 79% hope for lower pricing; 55% hope for better reliability; 41% hope for better customer service
  • 82% said that lower pricing from an alternative provider would make them consider changing; 59% would be motivated by better reliability

Since there seemed to be considerable support for a community network, the EDIC voted to do an engineering study, which is now in the works. They expect the results of this survey will be available by late May or early June. The economic impact of the current health crisis could have some bearing on the future of this project as people’s priorities shift.

Committee members noted that in an ideal world this should be a regional effort. According to the Falmouth representatives, the idea was to get it going there and then expand regionally if the project was successful.

One Committee member offered that the Community Network in Concord is based on Gigabyte Passive Optical Network (GPON). The key, he said, is to build a low-loss fiber network and add the electronics over time. The network is profitable in Concord. There is a podcast about how it was started.

The committee continued to discuss implementing a plan like this at the county level. In this model the town would own the last mile, which would become a revenue stream for the town, with service provided by any ISP. Connecting a whole town at once has the potential to drive the cost down, but it must be something the town prioritizes and would be a town-by-town decision.

Other municipalities have taken the opportunity to build into an area and get a revenue stream flowing. Since the town then owns the network it can afford to be patient for the payback. For residents, this translates to increased commercial and residential property values.

The impact of the current health crisis may slow things down – or it may create an incentive for the towns to make it possible for people to work from home with expedited broadband deployment.

With the current situation and increase in broadband use, the committee sees an opportunity to demonstrate the value of broadband to the community. Furthermore, if patients can have doctor’s visits conducted virtually in the home with high-speed internet connection, those who are unable to keep their doctor’s appointments could be seen. Open Cape reported that they have the ability to mobilize build crews to non-traditional locations where healthcare providers may be working.

In addition to remote medicine, the Tech Council is interested in alleviating social isolation. There may be an educational opportunity to show people how to get online and participate, possibly through the community centers. As more and more Cape residents shift to working from home, there may be populations who do not know what tools to use.

Resources noted by the committee include free instruction through the Cape Cod Community College career center for people to hold meetings online. Connectivity is available at nearly all the shelters; Open Cape is working to respond to the requests of healthcare providers; and there is WiFi available in many library parking lots. A committee member reported that towns are looking into additional public hotspots.

Perhaps the changes we make temporarily to get through the current crisis will lead to long term change – including more virtual Infrastructure meetings.

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