January 19, 2022

Directing Rescue Funds to Broadband


A plan to extend a fiber-optic broadband network to 1,528 customers got a tentative green light from the select board last July 26. The idea was to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to hire OpenCape, the nonprofit internet service provider, to extend its existing network from the Provincetown Commons along Bradford Street to the West End rotary and back along the entire length of Commercial Street to where it joins Bradford.

The new loop would extend OpenCape service to 1,150 homes and 378 businesses. Businesses would pay $80 a month and other residents $55 a month, OpenCape CEO Steven Johnston said, and the service would be more reliable than Comcast’s.

But most of Provincetown’s homes (76 percent) and businesses (62 percent) would still not be connected. And the price tag for the town to install the loop would be $825,000.

The state legislature passed a bond bill in 2020 that included $1.7 million to extend broadband service on the Outer Cape, but Gov. Charlie Baker never released the funds. The Baker administration will not invest in broadband here, says Sen. Julian Cyr, because we already have Comcast service, which may be expensive, spotty, and unreliable, but is good enough, according to the Baker team.

So, the Provincetown Select Board has endorsed the idea of using the ARPA funds, expected to arrive in the town’s coffers soon.

Connecting everyone in town to OpenCape’s fiber-optic network would cost $11 million, according to Johnston.

“That price tag is not possible,” said select board member Leslie Sandberg. But, she added, the Bradford-Commercial loop would be a decent first phase, made palatable by the ARPA funds.

The select board agreed to continue researching that option. “I would like the opportunity to put together a plan,” said Sandberg.

“I am absolutely for that,” said David Abramson, the board chair. “A lot of people deal in a lot of data, and they don’t have a lot of options. We need to pursue this further.”

Billions of dollars are coming to Massachusetts to help the state recover from the pandemic. (See related story on page A1.) Guidance from the federal government gives states “wide latitude” on use of the money, Johnston said.

These pots of ARPA money are separate from the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will provide another $65 billion nationally to help policymakers beef up high-speed internet access, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Even though the pandemic relief funds sound like a gold mine, there are a lot of needs out there for this one-time cash infusion.

Paul Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Barnstable County Chamber of Commerce, named the housing crisis as a top priority.

The median sales price of a single-family home jumped from $410,000 in 2019 to $570,000 in 2021, according to the Cape & Islands Association of Realtors. Child-care options are both costly and minimal, which prevents parents from fully joining the work force in a severe labor shortage. Many are calling for universal preschool.

Both of the bridges to the Cape require major repairs, Niedzwiecki added.

Broadband remains one of the issues that people complain about, and it is essential to keeping Cape Codders working from home and students connected to teachers during shutdowns.

“There is enough money to do something transformational,” Niedzwiecki said.

But there is not enough to do everything.

Comcast’s Monopoly

The majority of Cape Codders have access to broadband, which is defined as a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps) and a minimum upload speed of 3 mbps.

Comcast, which enjoys a virtual monopoly on the Cape, provides a combination of fiber and coaxial cable lines to nearly all Cape homes and businesses at faster speeds than that. Marc Goodman, a Comcast spokesman, said the base customer package, called “the performance starter/internet essentials,” has a download speed of 50 mbps and an upload speed of 5 mbps.

A test of the Comcast internet service at the Independent’s Provincetown office at 237 Commercial St. on Jan. 17 showed a download speed of 350 mbps, and an upload speed of 41.5 mbps (though a lot of work happens from a home office not served by Comcast, where a test that same day showed a download speed of 2 mbps and an upload speed of less than one mbps). A tool provided on OpenCape’s website allows you to check the current speed of your internet connection.

Johnston said if you continue to check the speed daily, you will see it slow down during busy use times in the summer.

OpenCape’s fiber network is as fast as Comcast but more reliable, Johnston said.

Still, Comcast seems to be good enough for most users, said Randy Hunt, a former state representative from Sandwich who worked to address internet complaints when he was in the legislature from 2011 to 2021.

“You need to meet people’s needs, and Comcast seems to do that with their coaxial cable,” Hunt said.

But many customers have problems with Comcast. Provincetown Select Board member John Golden said, “The service we get is dismal at best. On the Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t even believe how bad it was.”

“Everyone has a story about Comcast’s customer service,” said Niedzwiecki. Then there is the issue of Comcast’s prices.

The base price for internet service alone is $65 a month, according to Goodman and the local service rate posted online. Most people also get television through Comcast; those packages often exceed $200 a month.

The OpenCape Option

Jill Stauffer, executive director of the Provincetown Commons, a shared workspace, said she pays $450 a month to have a dedicated symmetrical connection through OpenCape. It is well worth it, she said, because in three years the Commons has lost its internet connection just twice for brief periods and only in rare circumstances, like a car accident taking out a utility pole.

OpenCape is a nonprofit that used $40 million in mostly federal funds to construct a middle-mile fiber-optics network up Route 6. When it was completed in 2013, the OpenCape founders discovered a serious miscalculation: they had thought private internet service startups would appear and would install the costly “last mile” connections between the network’s backbone and local homes and businesses. That didn’t happen.

This misstep has meant that most people cannot connect to OpenCape. Hospitals, municipalities, and larger businesses have spent the money to get their internet from OpenCape because it is a reliable backup, Hunt said.

OpenCape is getting creative in selling last-mile connections through plans like the one Johnston pitched to the Provincetown Select Board last July. This provides at least some competition to Comcast, which would otherwise have a total monopoly on the Cape, said Stauffer.

Perhaps it was this competition and loud complaining that motivated Comcast in 2021 to extend internet service to some rural roads that had been unserved for years. These included Pamet Point Road, Bound Brook Island Road, a portion of Old County Road, Pilgrim Road, and Old Hay Road in Wellfleet and Dorothy’s Lane, Long Nook Road, and Priest Road in Truro, said Goodman.

Goodman asserted that only about 50 homes on Cape Cod now lack access to Comcast’s service. His claim could not be verified, because Goodman said the list of unserved roads is “proprietary” and he refused to disclose them.

The trick will be to use the ARPA relief funds in an efficient way, Niedzweiki said. Cyr said OpenCape already provides internet to parts of the main streets in Hyannis and Falmouth for affordable rates. He said that could be a good model for high density areas like Provincetown.

But for the residents of rural roads, the choices are less attractive.

The Cape Cod Commission is about to put out a request for proposals to hire a consultant to examine what sort of internet service the Cape has now, what is lacking, and possible solutions (and associated costs), said Kristy Senatori, executive director of the commission.