Select Board Hears About Options To Improve Internet Service

By: Ed Maroney

Orleans officials are investigating ways to improve broadband access in town. PIXABAY PHOTO

ORLEANS This was news, from the Orleans Record, in 1902: An automobile “came to the Hotel Shattuck and stopped over night, Friday week, and then passed down to East Orleans, opposite Mrs. Freeman’s dwelling, when it went back. Report says the party intended to go to Provincetown, but was discouraged on account of the sandy road.”

Over the next century, that road and many others were paved and the region better connected. Yet in 2021, another lack of connection persists.

“As we’ve gone through the COVID situation with our school system, one of the biggest roadblocks has been the inability of many of our families to connect to high-speed internet in any kind of reliable way,” select board member Mark Mathison said last week. “Kids are sitting in their car outside the library or even the Sparrow. I think a lot of us are not aware that not everybody has reliable service.”

Mathison spoke at his board’s March 3 meeting with Steven Johnston, CEO and executive director of OpenCape, the non-profit fiber-optic network that serves the Cape and Islands and Southeastern Massachusetts. He’d been invited to talk about how the town could tap into the network further to increase connectivity and high-speed service.

Connectivity is critical to attract families to a community, according to Johnston. “Orleans is in a race,” he said. “Other towns are having these conversations. Forty towns around the Commonwealth have already built their own fiber network,” in part as a draw for people looking for a place to live and work remotely. “What those towns don’t have,” he said, “is the amazing, beautiful physical location Orleans has if we can only get the connectivity to match that.”

OpenCape’s fiber “backbone” – created with federal, state, and corporate funds plus in-kind contributions from the county – is already in Orleans, strung on Eversource and Verizon poles. It connects municipal buildings such as the police, water, and fire departments and town hall as well as schools and offices. Laterals off that line serve some businesses and residences that want high-speed service.

There are two service options at present. “One applies to Orleans,” Johnston said, “and one can apply to Orleans.”

“If our backbone goes by your house, you can call tomorrow and say you need great connectivity and don’t care about the cost,” he said. “It’s constant connectivity. Maybe you’re moving tons of data. Typically this is enterprise-level services, but across the Cape we have small businesses, individuals who work from home. It’s not the goal of OpenCape to connect everyone to this very robust service.”

The price is robust, too: $3,950 for installation if your location is close to the fiber network, and the monthly fee is more than Comcast’s. “We do have people who live in our community who work in the finance industry or medical field that are connected, but those are the exceptions,” said Johnston.

OpenCape is trying out a less costly option in parts of Falmouth and Hyannis, a passive optical network (PON) that connects small businesses and residential businesses. “To offer that service, I had to put about $45,000 to $50,000 in equipment in a co-location facility for Falmouth and Hyannis and would have to do the same in Orleans,” Johnston said. “It requires different servers, and we use different fibers.”

The service delivered is different, too, with download and upload speed varying based on the number of units. For that reason, “you don’t oversubscribe that service,” said Johnston. “That’s where providers are greedy. Kids get out of school, your internet service slows down. We don’t experience that.”

Installation of PON service runs between $500 and $800 and monthly fees are $55 for residences and $85 for small businesses.

Johnston estimated it would cost between $9.6 million and $14 million to connect every home in Orleans, “whether Orleans owns that, whether you sub it out to another provider that can own it and manage it. Other communities may have a third-party manager.” Long-term bonding by the town could be an option, balanced by a positive return on the investment.

In a subsequent email, Johnston noted that there is already “a significant amount of fiber in and around Orleans.” If the town were to move forward after proper study, he wrote, “it would be life-altering for the community (in a very good way) and would remove them from the yoke of corporate provider monopolies.”

Mathison said a “good starting point” for Orleans would be a careful read of the November 2020 “Feasibility Report for a Community Network” commissioned by the Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation. The study found that “61 percent of residents and many businesses would consider moving to a new broadband network. With that level of potential demand… it would be financially feasible to build and operate a new high-speed fiber optic network that would bring gigabit broadband capability to every home and business in Falmouth.” The town is at a competitive disadvantage because service “is not nearly as good as the broadband in nearby urban centers and surrounding suburbs.”

Select board member Andrea Reed suggested working with other Cape towns through the Cape Cod Commission, which has received $400,000 to study connectivity in the region, to seek further funding. Johnston noted that there’s $1.7 million for OpenCape in the state information technology bond bill that the governor has yet to release. “We had slotted 90 percent of those funds for expanding the network on the Outer Cape,” he said.

“I made the comment a few years ago,” Mathison said, “that not just the towns but the school systems needed to be prepared for the 21st century. We weren’t. Now we’re trying to fight our way and claw back into contention.”