Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA) - Leverett to Vote on Broadband Saturday 05/31/2012
LEVERETT - Following last month's resounding Town Meeting support of a plan to build a municipal high-speed Internet network, voters Saturday will be asked to approve funding for the $3.6 million project.
The special election on the Proposition 2½ debt exclusion will take place at Town Hall from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
As proposed by the town's Broadband Committee, the property tax levy would take the form of a 20-year bond directed toward the construction of a fiber optic cable network to provide broadband access and data transfer capability to the entire town. The project is the result of a longtime effort to improve slow Internet access and spotty telephone service due to aging copper-wire infrastructure.
"Beginning in 2009 or so, high speed providers decided that they weren't going to upgrade their landline cables in rural areas," said Richard Nathhorst, a member of the Broadband Committee and one of the drafters of the proposal. Though the state issued a court order last year to Verizon Telecommunications, the owner of the current lines, to improve service to rural areas, dissatisfaction remained high in town over frequent service outages and insufficient bandwidth access for many residents.
"We can't rely on private companies to support cutting-edge digital access in sparsely populated areas like ours," said Peter d'Errico, a member of the Select Board and a leading proponent of the effort to implement a municipally owned fiber optic cable system.
Along with several other members of the board and the Broadband Committee, d'Errico hosted informational sessions with residents to explain the plan's financing and detail its advantages. "This project will cost us about as much over the lifetime of the bond as we spend on our school system in a single year, but it's going to benefit the entire town," d'Errico said.
At the annual Town Meeting April 28, voters supported the proposal by a vote of 303 to 33 and agreed to hold Saturday's election to approve the funding. Under Massachusetts law, the 6 percent tax increase to finance the bond will require a two-thirds vote in favor of the measure in order to trigger the debt override provision in the state's Proposition 2½ law, which prohibits municipal tax increases of more than 2.5 percent.
If adopted, the network would be owned by the town but operated and maintained by a private company. Nathhorst said that with a municipal network, subscribers will see annual savings on phone and Internet bills that will outweigh the tax increase needed to pay off the bond. "Right now, we're paying for services and maintenance that we aren't getting from the private sector," he said. "Municipal networks aren't a new thing. This is a well-known strategy that we're using to get our costs down, even by the conservative estimate that we used in the proposal."
The initiative has garnered support for its economic potential as well as its quality-of-life aspect.
"We think of the Internet as a consumer device, but in fact it adds so much value as a professional tool and a creative tool as well," said Peter d'Errico. "There are a lot of people in Leverett who move information or market their artwork for a living, and they need this resource available to them. We're going to be able to attract them and keep them here."
Supporters also tout broadband access as a teaching tool for the Leverett Elementary School and a resource for home health care providers remotely monitoring clients in town. "This is one of the biggest single projects that Leverett's ever tried to do," said Nathhorst. "We've been able to address every question that's been put to us about this plan, and I think we've demonstrated its usefulness both to us and to other towns and cities around the state who are thinking about doing the same thing."
A questionnaire about the individual broadband needs of town residents and a projected time line for implementing the network are available from Town Administrator Marjorie McGinnis, 548-9699, townadministrator//www.leverett.ma.us/.