Belmont Light looks to introduce town-owned broadband internet

The Belmont Light general manager is planning to introduce the possibility of municipal-owned broadband internet. Photo by Ellie French / BU News Service

By Lexi Peery
BU News Service

BELMONT — Just four months into his new position as Belmont Light general manager, Chris Roy is looking to change the way Belmont residents get their internet. The change would allow the town to offer broadband internet for Belmont residents as soon as five years from now.

For Roy, it’s all about keeping services local. Roy spent a number of years working at Eversource, a privately-owned power company, and sees the pros of keeping utilities owned by local government.

“With investor-owned services, the goal is driven by shareholder values and returns,” Roy said. “The public power model, regulated by locally elected or appointed officials — we are in the city and town, we answer to people who live up the street, [it’s a] whole other level of accountability.”

To Roy, broadband internet is the next step in municipally-owned utilities. With net neutrality and the potential for changing policies based on changing administrations, Roy said municipal-owned internet services will offer a respite for residents.

Despite the presence of two corporate internet options in Belmont — Comcast with Xfinity, and Verizon with Fios — Roy knows what the process is like to bring municipal-owned broadband internet to a town. Just about 10 miles west on Route 2, Roy spent several years implementing broadband internet service in Concord.

Five years ago, Bill Underhill joined Roy and the Concord Municipal Light Plant as the telecommunications coordinator, or as he puts it, the “network guy.” Since joining the team, he’s seen the system grow dramatically — from 10 or 15 test customers in 2014 to about 1,200 customers now. Underhill said Concord Municipal Light Plant relies on word of mouth in the community to increase the customer base.

When asked about the competitiveness of private providers and municipal-owned services, Marc Goodman, a spokesperson for Comcast, highlighted the countless services Comcast can offer. Comcast offers a variety of packages – internet, phone lines, and cable — for a variety of prices, according to Goodman.

Getting Concord residents to switch to Concord Municipal Light Plant for their internet services has met one major roadblock. It’s something they can’t offer that major private internet services can.

″[There] is a small baseball team in Boston that is available on cable only,” Underhill said with a laugh. “Until [Red Sox games are] widely available, people want to keep it.”

The crux of municipal-owned internet for Underhill and Roy is customer service. It isn’t about setting an appointment between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and waiting for the technician show up, for Underhill. He’s focused on serving Concord, a town he can get almost anywhere in 20 minutes . Sometimes, if he gets a call on his way home from work, he’ll stop by a customer’s house to quickly fix a part. That’s what he said is the beauty is of broadband internet being municipally owned.

“It’s all about personalized service. Internet is a commodity. What differentiates us is the level service, that’s where we can win,” Underhill said. “We don’t have as many trucks, but we don’t have to go to North Shore or Cape if there’s a problem. We see these people around town all the time. It’s a little special being able to do it.”

And that’s what Roy wants to do in Belmont.

“We have the connection with the community,” Roy said. “It’s similar to the Concord model, it was all word of mouth. You trust the folks you’re working with.”

Mike Crowley is one of the few Belmont residents who knows about the possibility of municipal broadband internet. He has worked with his internet service provider a few times to lower his monthly costs, and hates the hassle.

After hearing about the potential of Roy’s project, Crowley has heard from neighbors nearby that there are streets that only have one service provider. He doesn’t like the idea of people being “locked into an oligopoly.”

“This is what we need in Belmont,” Crowley said. “It seems to be a way to obtain some cases better service at rates that are competitive, or in some cases better than Verizon and Comcast.”

Roy realizes that it will take some time to gather input from residents. With the upcoming election surrounding the potential new high school in town, Roy is holding off on introducing the possibility of municipal owned broadband internet to too many residents.

“In November,” Roy said, “there will be more of appetite.”

Lexi Peery is a Boston University journalism student reporting as part of a collaboration between the Belmont Citizen-Herald and the Boston University News Service.

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