Industry Experts: Focus on Connectivity Using Public-Private Partnerships
For more than a decade, OpenCape has installed hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable to provide broadband service to all 15 towns on Cape Cod. The next step is to complete last mile connections to more homes and businesses in the area.
The influx of new year-round residents due to the pandemic and an increase in the number of second homeowners choosing to stay in Cape Town and work from home have increased awareness of inadequacies in infrastructure and access broadband in the region.
“The first (request) we received during COVID was, ‘We just moved into our summer house…and I need a dedicated gigabit in my house,'” said Steve Johnston, CEO of OpenCape, at the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates. Last week. There are 162,000 households on Cape Cod, and 46% are seasonal homeowners who could live here and work remotely – if they had connectivity.
It will cost around $125 million to provide the same level of connectivity in Capewide that Main Street Falmouth, Woods Hole and downtown Hyannis now have access to, he said.
Erin Perry, deputy director of the Cape Cod Commission, said she and her staff are looking for money to pay a consultant to assess the current network and service gaps, examine the affordability of the broadband access across the county and identify communities that lack access.
Perry estimated the evaluation would take six months to a year.
Build a fiber optic network on Cape Cod
In 2013, OpenCape’s network went live with 350 miles of fiber covering all 15 cities in Cape Town, Nantucket and 38 cities in southeastern Massachusetts connecting to Boston and Providence.
Since then, the network has grown exponentially, Johnston said. “We now have 550 miles of fiber. We cover 92% of Cape Cod’s largest business customers” with 200 or more employees.
Yet OpenCape’s business customers currently use less than 2% of the network’s data capacity, he said.
“Right now, I could pump all the internet traffic through the fiber we have. It’s just about investing in that ‘last mile’ connection,” he said. “As we’re connecting these small businesses, we’re adding last-mile connections (to homes),” essentially connecting “Route 6” of broadband networks to residents’ driveways.
5G won’t be coming to Cape Town anytime soon
“Cape Cod is not at the top of any list for 5G deployment; it’s primarily an urban tool,” Johnston said. “You need multiple radios per mile to provide that dense, lightning-fast coverage.”
The term 5G simply means “fifth generation of cellular technology”. It refers to a set of standards that increase the speed at which data travels, reduce latency?, and makes wireless services more flexible.
But many Cape Cod customers would be happy with a reliable and affordable broadband connection.
FalmouthNet is looking to connect all of Falmouth, Johnson said, “because they have one of the worst services on Cape Cod.”
A resident of Sandwich, he said his Comcast bill was $385/month, which he called “obscene.”
“It’s ridiculous that people have to pay that kind of money to have poor service,” Johnston said. “We have the opportunity to change the paradigm.”
Government money sought for Cape Cod’s last mile broadband connections
Massachusetts allocated $50 million to improving broadband access in December, Johnston said, while New York and North Carolina each allocated $1 billion.
“We spend a lot of our energy in Cape Town…because the need here is greatest,” he said. “In Cape Town, you have no choice. You have no competition (between broadband providers). We see it as our mission to connect as many people as possible.”
Money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) offers an opportunity to change that paradigm, said Johnston, who contacted the Cape Town legislative delegation for support. Commissioners and residents who responded to the county’s survey of how ARPA funding should be used identified broadband as an infrastructure priority.
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Should OpenCape achieve an additional $5 million in funding, Johnston said, the Outer Cape would be the first location it would focus on.
“The fiber in the Outer Cap takes a little more abuse; it’s ‘sandblasted’ daily,” he said. “Coaxial cable (used by Comcast) was primarily designed to deliver Internet service through a video pipe. It’s nowhere near as efficient (as fiber).
“Great connectivity is the only stopgap we could really control; it would be the biggest boost we could do,” Johnston said. “There are a few towns in Cape Town that would benefit significantly from doing what we did in Falmouth. We are talking to them right now.”
What is Barnstable County’s role in expanding last mile broadband?
Barnstable County was OpenCape’s first seed investor, according to technology columnist Theresa Martin, co-founder of OpenCape and technology columnist for The Times.
“I think the county deserves a boost,” Martin said. “It’s really about infrastructure. Technology is a secondary ‘how’. Don’t start going down the rabbit hole of technical details. Over time, we know that’s going to change. Infrastructure needs to be in place to support this. There must be investments for this to happen.
When OpenCape was created, the idea was that publicly funded broadband infrastructure would be complemented by private investment for last mile development. This private investment never materialized in rural areas such as Cape Town because for-profit companies had a high return on investment in more densely populated areas.
“Cape Town is not alone in the last mile conundrum,” said Martin. “Cape Town has a relatively low density. Investment is not very attractive. OpenCape is targeted at the ‘middle mile’. That’s the barrier to investment.”
Johnston said he is looking forward to Election Day, November 8, in the hope that a new governor will prioritize investment to improve Cape Town’s last mile connections – and other rural areas.
“We need a broadband plan for the Commonwealth,” he said. “Massachusetts is one of 16 states in the country that does not have a central broadband office.”
Given the money, Johnston said, many cities would be willing to invest in Main Street initiatives.
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“It’s kind of where we’ve been stuck for 10 years, and it’s very frustrating,” Sandwich Assembly delegate James Killion said. “We use a very small percentage of the region’s fiber capacity, and we don’t leverage that value.”
“In some states, AT&T has been pushing to shut down community broadband. In Massachusetts, we have to give our state some credit for not succumbing to this,”
Comcast promises to increase expansion of last mile broadband on Cape Cod
Public-private partnerships work, said Tim Kelly, Comcast’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the Boston area, which serves 315 communities in New England. Comcast has extended free access to all of its Xfinity hotspots during the pandemic.
“Power fiber is going to every neighborhood in Cape Town,” Kelly said. “Service here should be the same as in Boston. Cape Town has everything everyone has…but there are obstacles and hurdles,” like clearance along the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Over the next four years, Kelly said, Comcast will add more network capacity. “We don’t dig the streets. We already have the infrastructure in place.
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“The pandemic has shown the importance of broadband more than ever,” he added. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute of the Mass Tech Collaborative, the state government agency responsible for overseeing broadband connectivity, is seeking a $1.5 million investment to upgrade Cape Town.
Comcast’s Internet Essentials program offers high-speed connections through its Affordable Connectivity program. Likewise, Kelly said, a Comcast partnership in Provincetown currently offers grant programs for families with limited incomes.
Wellfleet has the most unconnected households, said Wellfleet delegate Lilli Ann Green. “In the summer, regularly, my service decreases.”
“Give me addresses,” Kelly said. “We’ll get it fixed. We’ll do it.”