Brattleboro stays engaged in broadband talks

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BRATTLEBORO — Not ready to commit to building a municipal broadband network, Select Board members support other efforts that could help pave the way for one or for joining a regional project.

"I want to have vision and appreciate moving forward with these ideas, but I feel it's incumbent on us to be careful about the costs of even feasibility studies when we're not really sure as a community of what we're wanting now," Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel said during a recent board meeting.

The board previously discussed how other communities in the region have developed broadband projects, and town staff returned with potential actions.

Board members were in favor of staying involved in an initiative to create a communications union district, which would see local communities combining forces to build infrastructure.

An email from the Windham Regional Commission sought letters of support from towns, committees, boards and individuals. The deadline is Oct. 22.

"Tell us what the absence of high-speed broadband means for your community, and what it would mean if your residents, businesses, and organizations had access to it," Sue Westa, senior planner at the commission, wrote in the email. "We know that some towns are developing their own BIG proposals, which is fine. Whatever work is done will ultimately be complementary to the regional study and plan."

Town Manager Peter Elwell told the Reformer, "We will be providing a letter of support."

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin wanted to see how the state would address net neutrality because the U.S. Court for Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently said the states could set their own rules.

"If we develop a project, we could preserve and ensure net neutrality for the citizens of Brattleboro," Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland said. "That's, I think, a done deal."

In a memo, Moreland described net neutrality as "the policy that all internet traffic should be treated equally and that internet service providers must not either privilege or intentionally slow communications traffic based on the user, the content, the website, etc." Its importance became "increasingly urgent" after the FCC decided in December 2017 to repeal rules requiring net neutrality, he wrote.

Moreland asked board members if their goals were to serve all locations in town equitably, lower the cost of broadband or have exceptionally high-quality service downtown to avoid urban sprawl. He said a consultant could be hired to map out a design to build a network.

"This has gone a little fast," Wessel said. "I don't feel a lot of residents are champing at the bit for this."

He reported getting a "tepid response" from followers on social media about the subject of a new network when comparing it to other issues such as opioids and downtown development.

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"I don't really have super strong feelings about this," said board member Daniel Quipp. "It doesn't feel to me like an urgent priority."

For board member David Schoales, the issue is one of critical importance for economic development and social equity. He suggested adding a measure or budget item about broadband to gauge interest from Representative Town Meeting members. The annual meeting is in March.

Other board members worried about the potential cost of a municipal network for taxpayers and urban sprawl.

"I'm an urban compact kind of person and I feel that having good service through the urban corridor and at the library would address many of the concerns people have for schoolchildren and so forth," McLoughlin said.

Wessel said he consciously decided to live downtown to have access to higher internet speeds. His video production business depends on high upload speeds.

Tim Maciel of Brattleboro said a municipal fiber-optic network would bring faster speeds, better security, cheaper prices and increased access to populations who might not otherwise have high-quality service.

"This is one of the most forward-thinking proposals I've heard from the Select Board in a long time," Maciel said. "I'm very excited about this."

Donald Saaf, a local teacher and artist, agreed with Maciel's description of the project as progressive.

"I think fiber optics is like electricity," Saaf said. "It's like telephones and we're going to need it in the future. And we need it for everybody, not just for downtown."

Derrik Jordan, a musician from Dummerston, said he supports having fiber optics everywhere — from schools to businesses to homes.

"We will retain our youth," he said. "Many young people are moving away because they don't have access. They can't have that kind of powerful access through their computer, through working at home, through a job, so they move to a larger city where they have more connections and they can do that."

Jordan said a fiber network would act as an "economic magnet" by bringing people to Brattleboro.

Franz Reichsman, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee, said data on the economic impact and cost will be needed before making a decision on how to proceed.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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