Shoofly pie, and broadband, too

Update: Weary of waiting for affordable, high-speed Internet service, Kutztown, Pa., decides to install its own system.

March 10, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

KUTZTOWN, Pa. - This town midway between Reading and Allentown has about 5,000 residents, an annual Amish festival renowned for its apple butter and shoofly pie, a Main Street adorned with hex signs and gingerbread facades, a neighborhood park with a wooden band shell and a hardware store where the vending machine sells candy for 15 cents.

Oh, yes, and one more thing:

The local government will soon offer its own high-speed Internet service to every resident and business. And the price will likely be less than people in Maryland pay if they can even get broadband Internet service where they live. Kutztown, on the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch country, is the latest of 100 cities and towns across the country that have installed their own high-speed systems for Internet users.

Some of the places simply have the wealth or know-how to do so, such as Palo Alto in California's Silicon Valley or the Boston suburb of Braintree. But Kutztown, like many of the more rural towns that built their own systems, simply tired of waiting for one of the large providers such as Verizon Corp. to discover them. As politicians in Washington dicker over how to bridge the so-called "digital divide," these towns built their own bypass to the information superhighway.

"Some of these towns were too small to get the attention of the large incumbent providers; the rate of return isn't there for them," said Ron Lunt, director of telecommunications services for the American Public Power Association, a trade group of municipal utility companies in Washington. "And I don't see the large incumbent providers upgrading the systems with the entrenchment and stock prices the way they are."

One of the four regional Bell companies, SBC Communications Inc. of Texas, halted a major, nationwide upgrade of its system last fall. Uncertainty about government regulations made it too risky to invest in distant areas that are difficult to serve, said its chief executive.

While most midsize and large cities are served by the two major forms of broadband Internet connections - digital subscriber lines typically from phone companies and cable modem service from cable television providers - less than 5 percent of towns with fewer than 10,000 residents have both services, according to a government study.

Kutztown residents have had one option to date - cable-modem broadband service from the local cable TV company, Service Electric Cable TV Inc.

The roster of towns and cities building their own Internet networks is spread across the country.

The lone one in Maryland is Easton, although its network is less ambitious than Kutztown's.

About 500 of Easton's 5,000 cable TV and electric customers began receiving always-on, broadband service through the town system last summer. The monthly fee, about $40, is roughly what private providers offer, although private service isn't available in many corners of the Delmarva Peninsula.

When Easton Utilities introduced an earlier cable-modem connection in 1998, it was the first area on the Eastern Shore to offer broadband service, said Bill Russell, cable and communications manager for Easton Utilities.

Glasgow, Ky., which has been described as the most wired town in that state, launched the first municipal Internet service in the late 1980s. LaGrange, Ga., provides it free to subscribers of its cable TV system. A county in eastern Washington state with its own high-speed network is so isolated - 12 homes per square mile - that its project has been referred to as "fiber to the trailer."

These systems are often cheaper than commercial providers. According to Lunt of the power association, public system rates average $33 a month, at least 20 percent less than market prices.

Cheaper doesn't mean lesser, though. Kutztown's fiber-optic system will be able to download files in an eye blink - 10 times faster than cable modems, 20 times faster than digital subscriber lines and 225 times faster than the dial-up modems in most homes with Internet access.

Several factors encouraged Kutztown's push into cyberspace.

The town has its own electric generator - and resells energy to local energy companies - so it felt that it already had the equipment and know-how to maintain an Ethernet system, which transmits voice, data and pictures in the form of light through tiny strands of glass.

Kutztown anticipates strong demand for such service because half of its dwellings are rented out to Internet-savvy students who attend the nearby state university. Also, the town manager is a civil engineer by training, so he wasn't intimidated by the technical challenge.

"It is feasible for certain communities," said Keith A. Hill, Kutztown's borough manager since 1990. "You have people ask, `Is the government competing with the private sector?' But I don't look at it that way. It's a consumer-owned system. It helps support our parks, our pools, our police. The money stays in the community."

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