Photo: Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
BARKHAMSTED — The idea of establishing an independent fiber optic network for internet service sounds like a good one to residents who say they’re dissatisfied with their existing service, but officials say there are many hurdles to overcome to make it a reality.
Residents and town leaders Wednesday discussed the results of a survey on internet service, in which 209 people out of the town’s 3,650 residents participated — a little less than 10 percent.
Brian Johnson, a member of the town’s broadband committee, presented the survey’s results.
“The responses were pretty definitive,” Johnson said, adding that he has been working with Northwest Connect, a coalition of local leaders and residents, to bring fiber optic service to the region. Northwest Connect, according to Barkhamsted First Selectman Don Stein, is a response to people’s frustration over spotty internet service in the Northwest Corner. Spectrum is one of the area’s major cable and internet providers.
The results of the survey indicate that respondents use the internet for online schooling, working from home, doctor’s appointments, movies and music. “Overall, 49.7 percent of the people who took the survey said they are dissatisfied with their service and want more choices,” Johnson said.
“Seventy-five percent said they use the internet for work,” Johnson said. “I didn’t expect it to be quite that high, but it’s with the pandemic. People also said they expect to keep working from home. This is important for people who live here, or plan to move here.”
Stein and Johnson also learned through the survey that people are subscribing to Spectrum and Frontier, another cable service provider, for better reliability.
Johnson, who lives in the Pleasant Valley section of Barkhamsted, said his neighborhood doesn’t have reliability issues for internet service. “My perception is that some areas of town have more issues than others,” He said. “I suspect there might be areas with less well-maintained infrastucture, and when a lot of people are using it, it slows down.”
As part of their research into the advantage of fiber optic, Johnson and Stein and other committee members visited Westfield, Mass., which has “rolled out fiber optic” independently, Stein said, for the entire town.
Resident Todd Winkler, who also works in software development, asked about West Hartford using GoNetspeed, which completed an expansion of its fiber optic network in April, according to its website. In November, the company announced it was expanding to households in parts of Southington, West Hartford, Rocky Hill, Hamden, North Haven, Fairfield and Bridgeport in the first half of 2021, according to its website.
Johnson said GoNetspeed is focused on areas with larger populations than a town like Barkhamsted.
“They’re looking at the larger markets, larger towns,” Johnson said. “Any company like that, if we’re going to wait for them to get to Barkhamsted, we’ll be waiting a long, long time.”
Resident Melissa Roy asked whether Barkhamsted was looking at other service providers, “or just working with what we have.”
Stein said, “Other cable providers have a monopoly in any given town. … Within this region, if we were successful in bringing in fiber optics, we’d set up a local utility, and we’d provide it. No town in the state has done this.”
To make it work, Johnson told the forum, everyone in town has to support it. “Westfield’s success in getting fiber optics was because there were homes that didn’t have cable or DSL options, so a lot of people signed up, and Westfield was able to offer it at an attractive price. We’ll need to get to a point in this process where we know how many people want it, and find out if it can be done for a reasonable price.”
So far, the broadband committee hasn’t discussed cost. Stein is hopeful that the state’s economic development division can provide financial help. He also hopes all towns in the region join the effort. “There are 25 towns … that are trying to figure this out,” he said. “We haven’t run the numbers yet. We don’t know what the cost will be.”
Other towns are doing similar studies and having similar discussions, according to Stein.
“Canaan, Sharon, Kent are trying to determine whether townspeople are interested and what the costs would be,” he said. “Norfolk may go to a town meeting next March to run fiber optics through the entire town. They’d be responsible for their own network. If we did it, too, and Norfolk and Kent did it, we could maybe use the same company.”
Johnson and Stein said they would continue to provide public information on the survey. “The next time we get together, we can come up with some costs, fees, and what it might cost a taxpayer,” Stein said. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis; what does it do for your property values, your ability to work from home, et cetera.”
He also invited interested residents to join the committee, and to email or call Town Hall to discuss it.
Resident Edward Bachman said the state should be interested in helping local towns. “The state keeps talking about losing businesses and losing people. I think (Don Stein) should make this a topic, right in front of the governor. Rather than towns trying to make their own solutions, the state should get involved.”
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