Town mulls web option

AMHERST — Ten years ago, the town signed a contract with Comcast to provide cable television to residents.

The contract is up for renewal this year, and it’s a whole new world.

Over the last decade, streaming services have created a revolution in the way people consume TV, with much of it coming through the internet.

Now, officials want to know how people in Amherst’s 4,000 households use the internet, how much they like Comcast and whether there is interest in another option, such as a municipal internet utility, if it ever becomes an option under state law.

The Amherst Internet Committee is about to survey residents on those questions, Selectman Nate Jensen told the rest of the board recently.

The committee members want to know if “there is any appetite at all” for such a project, he said, so they know whether they should continue researching.

“There is a vocal group in town that’s very critical of Comcast,” Jensen said, “but we don’t know if they reflect residents as a whole.”

The committee will use an online service called Survey Monkey to poll people.

“If we get a substantial response, we’ll get a better idea of how the internet is being used in town,” Jensen said.

Carol Miller, a state expert on internet connectivity, came to Amherst to talk to the committee and said more than 60 percent of people in every New Hampshire town are using the internet for a business or to work remotely from home, Jensen said. Eventually, it will be 80 to 90 percent, he said.

There will be “a huge bandwidth demand” that the current structures won’t be able to support, Jensen said.

Last year, House Bill 1180 would have allowed towns and cities to issue bonds for broadband infrastructure.

According to the New Hampshire Municipal Association, telecommunications companies, afraid of the competition, are fighting municipal broadband, and a House committee voted to kill the bill by a slim margin.

Amherst selectmen encouraged Jensen and the committee to continue their research.

Jensen called a municipal internet utility a huge undertaking that could take five or six years and cost $5 million to $8 million.

What people will want to know is how much it will cost them and what kind of bandwidth they will get for their money, Selectman Peter Lyon told him.

Burlington, Vt., floated a $17 million bond for internet a number of years ago and then ran into financial trouble, selectmen noted, but other communities, including Belmont, Mass., have started their own successful utility.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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