PROVINCETOWN — Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill in August authorizing up to $1.8 billion in infrastructure investment, including $1.7 million to expand broadband coverage in Provincetown via the OpenCape fiber-optic network. But OpenCape is still waiting for the funds to be released by the governor.
“We’re ready to rock and roll,” said Steven Johnston, the nonprofit corporation’s executive director. “If I got a text or a call from the governor right now saying we’re going to release that money, we would have crews start working on that immediately, because our goal would be to have that up and running in the spring or before.”
The Provincetown plans include expanding coverage down Bradford Street Extension to the West End rotary and back up Commercial Street to create a loop reconnecting to Bradford Street in the East End.
“It wouldn’t allow us to connect everyone, but it allows us to do some amazing stuff,” said Johnston.
Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham are also in line to receive strategic extensions of the OpenCape network. Johnston said he would be meeting with local officials in those towns to work on strategy.
“One of the places I’d love to get connected is Outer Cape Health Services,” he said.
OpenCape, founded in 2006, maintains a fiber “backbone” along Route 6 all the way to Provincetown. Its broadband service has a higher bandwidth than the cable internet offered by Comcast, said Johnston.
OpenCape currently serves municipal buildings and a few businesses. Aside from a residential experiment launched this year, however, Cape residents cannot link their homes to the fiber network. If the so-called last miles of fiber service on residential streets were constructed throughout the Cape, Comcast, with its spotty service, would need to compete.
OpenCape has been advocating for release of the funds through a grassroots campaign of letters and phone calls from Cape residents and visitors. The Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates added its support last month with a letter urging the governor to release the funds.
“Advocacy for the funds to be released is just a typical strategy,” said Wellfleet’s delegate, Lilli-Ann Green, at the assembly’s Sept. 16 meeting.
“Even before the pandemic, we all knew that our cellular service and particularly our internet service on the Cape had been inadequate,” said Provincetown Delegate Brian O’Malley. “The impact of so many more people working from home, holding meetings like this all the time, clearly has been that the need for improved internet service throughout the Cape is so very much more apparent.”
“It’s not just nice to have, it’s a must have, because the way we’re going to work going forward has changed forever,” said Johnston.
Installing “last-mile” fiber-optic connections to the OpenCape backbone costs approximately $70,000 per mile. Some people are reportedly paying the price on their own.
“Every time I connect a business or some rich person’s house that is four miles from my backbone,” said Johnston, “I have to build to them, and that allows me to extend fiber, that they pay for, out into the community. That’s a win-win.”
While Johnston said that he is “always out talking to those seven- and eight-figure individuals,” encouraging them to follow Andrew Carnegie’s example of charitable giving, he said, realistically, the way forward to connect every home to the network would be for the towns to use their bonding authority.
“It’s something where the towns really need to get behind it,” Johnston said. “The town invests in the infrastructure. They own the fiber that connects the homes together. They can buy fiber connectivity from OpenCape or from Comcast or both.”
He noted that towns are now faced with a number of costly issues. “It’s just about where is this in the list of priorities,” said Johnston.