Getting the town wired for high-speed fiber is the guiding vision of the Cornwall Internet Committee, according to Committee Chair Gary Steinkohl. An early step towards that goal was to conduct a town-wide internet survey. The committee outlined the findings at a March 29 Zoom meeting. The full results are available at https://cornwallct.org/cornwall-internet-committee. Here are some highlights:
275 Cornwall residents filled out the questionnaire. Optimum is the service provider for 245 of those 275 respondents; Frontier is a very distant second, at 18 households, while 6 percent have no internet at all. Most pay over $50 per month for service.
22 respondents say their service reliability is ‘poor,’ 74 say it’s ‘fair,’ 87 say it’s ‘satisfactory’ – and 51 say it’s ‘excellent.’
137 of the respondents pay for 100 Mbps or higher speeds, but 37 say they don’t get those speeds in practice. 130 respondents say they get less than 25Mbps. Still, overall, most respondents consider their internet speed sufficient.
The survey also asked about cell phone coverage — and Cornwallians were far less satisfied on that front. Most reported just ‘1 bar’ of service inside their houses, and most were either ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ with their cell phone service outside of their home, as well.
After reviewing the survey, Steinkohl told the Zoom attendees cell service was beyond the committee’s scope. Moving forward, the committee will focus its efforts only on hardwired broadband improvements, more specifically, how to get Cornwall wired with gigabit fiber. In the next decade, fiber optic connections will be essential for everything from gaming and streaming video to businesses and advanced video conferencing. Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) is the future, the committee knows it, and they are trying to find the best way to bring it to Cornwall.
One possibility is for Cornwall to install its own municipally-owned fiber-optic cabling, then contract with an internet provider to offer high-speed service over the Cornwall-owned lines. It’s an option advocated by Northwest Connect – a company funded by the Northwest Hills Council of Governments. Northwest Connect has been instrumental in bringing a municipally-owned fiber plan forward in Norfolk – and it’s due for a vote there later this month. They’re also promoting similar plans for all the towns in Litchfield County.
According to Kim Maxwell, President of Northwest Connect, this option breaks Optimum’s virtual monopoly and provides a better product for residents. Gary Steinkohl likes that towns can have ‘skin in the game’ in their digital future.
But this solution doesn’t come cheap. According to Maxwell’s back-of-the-napkin estimates for Cornwall, it could cost about $6.3 million to run the fiber cables through town and to each home. Unless there was another way to pay for the expansion, it could mean a $26-$30 a month tax hike for every Cornwall resident, regardless of whether they use the new service. Those wanting to subscribe to the municipal service would still pay about $90 a month to a private service provider. However, it’s possible Optimum or Frontier could sign on to administer the network. Maintaining the fiber cable would fall on the town, though it needs a lot less maintenance than cable lines. Maxwell knows the upfront costs make for a hard sell in many communities but contends the future-proofing aspect is worth it. He equates it to town council fights about paving roads 100 years ago. Gary Steinkohl liked this pro-active approach and said it could benefit the town if done right.
Another option to secure FTTH service might be just to wait. Optimum (changing its name to Altice) claims it will begin building out its fiber-optic network starting late 2022 or early 2023. This promises to provide 1-gig fiber internet to nearly everyone in town, certainly all current Optimum subscribers. There would be no costs to the town, no tax increase and, Optimum claims it would upgrade the fiber again when 10 gig speeds are in enough demand. But, Cornwall was one of the last places to get cable in the 90s, and, as Steinkohl and other committee members have pointed out, there’s nothing holding Optimum accountable to its proposed timeline. Steinkohl said a municipal fiber option could help hold Optimum’s feet to the fire.
So, what would a version of the ‘Northwest Connect’ plan look like for Cornwall? What would it cost? Alternatively, how realistic is Optimum’s fiber rollout schedule? These are the questions the Cornwall Internet Committee is trying to tackle. For the all-volunteer committee, it’s a pursuit riddled with ‘what ifs?’ and unknowns – unfortunately, you can’t just look up these answers online.