By STEVEN WITHROW
Falmouth Enterprise – 12/20/2019
The Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation kicked off a six-month feasibility study that will begin next month for a community fiber-optic network for Falmouth with a public meeting last week, December 12, at the Falmouth Public Library.
At the meeting, which drew about 50 people, Douglas Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, presented an overview of the project and encouraged those in attendance to share their experiences and ask questions regarding Internet services available now or in the future in Falmouth, F. Michael DiGiano, the EDIC’s executive director, said.
“All sectors of Falmouth’s economy require reliable, high-speed internet service,” EDIC chairman Christopher Land said. “This first-ever assessment will give us a handle on what problems our residents and businesses are experiencing and whether a community fiber-optic network is a possible solution.”
A grassroots advocacy group of Falmouth residents conceived the idea of a community network as a competitive, locally controlled alternative to service providers such as Comcast or Verizon.
In June, the group brought its idea to the EDIC, and the board voted to fund a $50,000 feasibility study.
“Today’s internet connections in Falmouth are subject to summer overloads and weather-related outages. Verizon’s most advanced residential service, FIOS, doesn’t cross the Cape Cod Canal. As a result, Comcast has the only high-speed residential service in Falmouth,” the EDIC said in a release.
The proposed network would provide a competitive alternative to existing commercial internet service providers, Mr. DiGiano said.
“By making high-speed fiber-optic technology more widely available, the Falmouth community network would support reliable service and fast internet access. In addition, the network would have the capacity to serve Falmouth’s summer population while also supporting the year-round economy. A locally controlled community-based network would offer better customer service and more transparent rates,” the EDIC release said.
There are 16 Massachusetts communities with locally controlled internet access networks, including Taunton, Norwood, Braintree, Concord and Reading. Falmouth is one of 12 Massachusetts towns to explore community networks this year.
In July, the EDIC and the community network group issued a request for proposal for consultant services to complete the feasibility study. Nine firms responded with proposals. The EDIC selected North Carolina-based CCG Consulting, which has completed more 200 similar feasibility studies for clients around the country, Mr. DiGiano said.
“The Falmouth feasibility study will survey Falmouth residents and businesses about their current internet services. It will examine Falmouth’s communications infrastructure to determine the cost of building the envisioned network, and it will specify several options for financing and operating the network,” the EDIC release said.
The study’s findings are expected by June, Mr. DiGiano said.
At last week’s meeting, Mr. Dawson discussed potential issues with the economics and engineering behind a community network as well as issues of estimating customer demand.
“We also did an eight-question audience survey about internet services and what issues they were having over past 12 months: what they were happy with or not happy with, what was important to them,” Mr. DiGiano said. “People asked a lot of questions, but I think it was no surprise generally that the people in the room were concerned about customer service, download speeds, system reliability and value for services compared with the prices they were paying. Those were the hot button issues.”
In January and February, CCG Consulting will conduct a phone survey of randomly selected Falmouth residents.
“We are looking for at least 380 responses to the phone survey, and we will also be sending out a questionnaire to Falmouth businesses,” Mr. DiGiano said. “What we hope to learn from that would be the services that are desired or needed, cost expectations, potential customer base for community fiber-optic network, residential and business.”
If the numbers seem positive, the team will move to what Mr. DiGiano called “a top-level engineering analysis” in March and April.
“It’s basically a network design to meet the needs identified in the survey,” he said.
In May and June, the team will do an in-depth financial analysis, looking at the development costs of construction, the different finance models for the project and the different network operator options.
“We’ll need to determine whether we would go to a private internet service provider on or off the Cape, to a town-owned model or to a locally controlled nonprofit corporation that owns the system and hires a private provider to operate it,” Mr. DiGiano said. “In the locally controlled model, the representatives from community would be members of the governing board. Those models exist in other communities.”
As part of its financial analysis, the team will conduct a study of 10-year financial profit and loss projections for the system with different kinds of financing, Mr. DiGiano said.
“Those would be detailed enough that we could take those to the public and private finance sources,” he said.
Funding sources include municipal or revenue bonds, commercial bank financing and a mixture of those sources.
“Commercial bank financing could be more attractive in some cases than bond sources. There are also some private-sector investment groups financing these systems,” Mr. DiGiano said.