CAPE COD – On a utility pole across the street from State Rep. Randy Hunt’s house on Quaker Meeting House Road in Sandwich is a government-funded OpenCape fiber optic high speed internet cable.
“It is literally right across the street from me,” said Hunt, who, gets his home internet from what he described as Comcast’s older and slower coaxial cable coming from a neighborhood “node.”
Each neighborhood node, according to Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman, actually gets a signal from Comcast fiber. So Comcast has fiber on the Cape, he said. “We have thousands of miles of fiber on Cape Cod,” he said.
The signal that arrives over fiber is then disbursed and shared throughout the neighborhood over coaxial cable, he said. “It’s designed to handle additional volume, said Goodman. “We’ve increased our internet speed 17 times over the last 18 years.”
And, said Goodman, “Cape customers have access to same advanced products and services that we offer in any of our markets.”
There is a “hybrid fiber coax [coaxial cable] system” serving “pretty much every resident” of Cape Cod,” said Goodman.
Yet Hunt said his office has received many complaints that Comcast is the only option, and that it is too expensive and too slow. There is some hope that OpenCape could become, “a community-based alternative,” he said.
Goodman disputed that Comcast is the only alternative on Cape Cod. On Cape Cod, said Goodman, “it’s extremely competitive. There are multiple providers for every aspect of our business. That’s why we’ve continued to invest in our products and services and network.”
“They’ve upgraded because I’m knocking on their door,” said Steve Johnston, Executive Director of OpenCape.
Hunt noted how tantalizingly close the OpenCape fiber is to his house and to many other people’s houses.
“But it would cost me $3,200 just to connect to my house. How in the world am I supposed to amortize $3,200. At $100 a month over 32 months and I have no signal yet. That’s just installation,” said Hunt.
OpenCape is a 501c3 nonprofit that, with money from government grants, has strung almost 550 miles of fiber optic cable through more than 40 towns in Southeastern Massachusetts, said Johnston.
“We have a much bigger footprint than most people realize,” said Johnston.
On Cape Cod, the OpenCape fiber runs the backbone of Route 6, as well as into several downtowns, on major Cape roads, and to many Cape Cod institutions – thus the government money – such as hospitals and schools.
OpenCape, according to many – but not Comcast – is the only competition to Comcast for high speed internet access and all that means for all of Cape Cod. As of now, because of the extreme cost to connect, OpenCape does not compete on residential service.
And so, as Barnstable County Administrator Jack Yunitz and many others have said, “It’s hard to get a fair price in a sole-source market.”
Because of the high cost of cable TV, Hunt said his seminar, “Cutting The Cord; How To Watch TV Like A Millennial” is the most popular seminar of several that he gives. “It’s absolutely a non-partisan issue,” said Hunt.
“It’s absolutely a non-partisan issue.” – State Rep Randy Hunt (R-Sandwich) on cable TV prices.
People want to get away from the monopoly that is Comcast, he said. And yet, said Hunt, even those who “cut the cord” for television get their high speed internet, in order to stream television, on Cape Cod from Comcast.
Or some watch TV from a signal, as Goodman said, from satellite dish “or on their mobile devices.”
“There are a multitude of providers in the business community,” he said.
But still, could OpenCape be a public alternative, not just for institutions and large businesses, but also for residences?
And maybe more importantly, considering a price estimate of $100 million or more to wire the entire Cape with fiber optic cable, should it?
Robbin Orbison, president and owner of CapeSpace, a provider of flexible and temporary work space, is a customer of OpenCape.
When Orbison started CapeSpace five years ago, she began looking for a building with enough parking and she discovered that most of the buildings she looked at, including the one she is now in, were big buildings along the backbone of the Cape’s major roads. This meant access to OpenCape.
While hardly any businesses on the Cape were connected to OpenCape at the time, Orbison, who moved to Cape Cod and started Capespace five years ago, said, “Sometimes it takes an outsider to find things. I showed up knowing nothing.”
Before starting CapeSpace, she did her research. This included meeting with Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce President Wendy Northcross, who, Orbison said, told her about OpenCape. Orbison was interested.
Orbison knew, for instance, that her internet “has to work. I didn’t feel comfortable relying on Comcast as my solution. I have that in my house. It’s very unreliable. It’s slow. It goes out a lot. And try getting tech support on the phone,” she said.
“The difference between Comcast and OpenCape,” said Johnston, “is that Comcast has to deal with a legacy network.”
“It’s a network built to deliver video. Their network is not 100 percent fiber. My network is state of the art 100 percent fiber, built specifically to move tremendous amounts of data at the speed of light,” he said.
“The way I think of it,” said Orbison, “is imagine a dirt road – a dusty, bumpy, narrow dirt road with lots of ditches and fallen trees in the way and lots of growth along the side, and imagine thousands of cars trying to get down that road. Now imagine a big, brand new eight-lane superhighway with those same cars. Fiber is bigger.”
For Orbison’s 8,600-square-foot business, which has about 400 clients who use its space in varying capacities, high-speed internet is crucial. “I have a number of clients who are videographers with data intense files. I have people who book here only for the internet so they can upload and download large files and it doesn’t become an overnight affair,” she said.
OpenCape, said Orbison, “has some of the most modern fiber technology on the planet. It’s right here on Cape Cod, and almost no one has access to it.”
Orbison has access at her business. CapeSpace. She pays a hefty price and, she said, it’s totally worth it.
But that hefty price and the limit to only one type of super high end service has, thus far, limited the reach of this state of the art technology from making a bigger impact on the region.
As of now, said Johnston, OpenCape offers a dedicated symmetrical line, meaning it offers equal upload and download speeds that never vary.
Hunt said, “Fiber is analogous to the old copper wire telephone system. That copper wire that goes into your house goes all the way back to the switch house. You’re not sharing it with anyone. In this case it’s the same thing. That’s the reason you can be guaranteed a rate of speed.”
But with Comcast, Hunt said, “each neighborhood has a node that the users connect to in that neighborhood… When everyone starts piling on and you get these heavy graphic Fortnite programs going, that starts to drag on the system.”
Currently, OpenCape is for commercial customers as well as servicing major institutions.
One thing that OpenCape offers, said Johnston, is what he calls “redundancy,” which is another way of saying a backup system. “Redundancy is huge in our environment,” he said.
“We live on an isthmus,” he said. “If [a storm like the one that hit] Puerto Rico happened here or Houston happened here, you want multiple providers,” he said. Initially, that was OpenCape’s focus, he said.
The idea was to be a backup plan for major institutions in case Comcast went down, said Johnston. Because OpenCape has a faster signal, that dynamic has often reversed, he said. This means Comcast is the backup in many places to the primary source, OpenCape, he said.
And OpenCape is building connections in most places with a ring of fiber so that it connects in from two separate fibers in case one is damaged from a storm. “If someone crashes into a telephone pole and cuts the fiber, our network realizes it and sends the data another way,” he said.
“It’s more expensive, but more reliable,” said Johnston.
Of course, Cape Cod has unique points such as Woods Hole and the Outer Cape, which do not have a ring since the fiber comes down one path to each.
But, Johnston said, fiber is more resilient during storms and even if a pole goes down, the fiber is built to slide in its grips. “I’ve had poles snapped and the fiber is on the ground and the network is still running,” he said.
And, he said, “I also have a redundant microwave network from Woods Hole to Provincetown. It’s designed in a way so if I had fiber damage I can jump on the network, circumvent the damage, and reconnect to the fiber.”
The reliability is a big part of the appeal of CapeSpace, said Orbison. “I have people who come here when Comcast goes down.” she said. “I call them Comcast refugees.”
OpenCape, said Orbison, “has never gone down. Their reliability is amazing.”
“We can have groups in here, events in here with 150 people all using wifi and there is no discernible change in service,” she said.
Hunt said he believes OpenCape has the potential to be an economic driver on Cape Cod.
And Yunitz said, “If I were a commercial developer on Cape Cod, every time I made an investment I would make sure I have OpenCape. You’ll get a better quality of tenant.”
Orbison agreed. Although OpenCape was not an absolute requirement when she began looking for a building, she said it turned out to be exactly what she needed. “They’ve been great partners, business-wise,” she said.
Yunitz said there is an opportunity OpenCape to lure high-end, high tech talent, “the kind of people who work for Amazon, who work for Google, who have commercial space in Boston. These are the kind of people who would thrive on Cape Cod if they had the opportunity to be here,” he said.
That is the idea, said Johnston. “We look at ourselves as an economic development engine,” he said.
Hunt said, “If we make this available to businesses that are data heavy users, I imagine it would be easier recruiting people who would love to wake up on a Saturday morning on Cape Cod.”
Johnston said the focus of OpenCape has been “connecting clients who are closest to our network.” OpenCape has been selling redundancy and more, he said.
But OpenCape, he claimed, is the go-to option for companies frustrated with the alternative. “I got a call from a company on MacArthur Boulevard [in Bourne], a big company, and they said they had just renewed their contract with Comcast three weeks prior. They contacted us because Comcast had been down for three or four days and they wanted help. We connected them within a week.”
Johnston said that while Comcast runs fiber on the Cape, “they do it very selectively, and they do it for their biggest clients. They’re never going to build out fiber to residential because it’s simply not in their best interest. The 200,000 people that live on Cape Cod are simply not worth the expense to Comcast.”
Verizon, which has been running a national ad campaign about their fiber optic Fios, “has pulled out of the Cape,” said Johnston. “It’s not in their interest to run fiber on the Cape,” he said.
Cape Cod Wave reached out to Verizon for comment, and we received an email back from David Weissman, public relations manager, stating, “We won’t be participating in this story.”
Meanwhile, Johnston is doing what he can to bring his fiber to as many people as possible while evangelizing to businesses near his network why he believes that OpenCape offers better, more reliable service.
“We have lots of clients who have only one connection, and we’re it,” he said.
Erik Gura, owner of Pie In The Sky, a bakery/coffee shop in Woods Hole, has connected his business to OpenCape and he has no regrets. “It’s a better system. It’s more reliable,” he said.
With the OpenCape fiber running down Water Street to the Woods Hole Oceanograpic Institution, his connection cost was much less than if he was further away from the fiber. The cost to hook up was $3,000, he said. It was well worth it, he said.
Before Pie In The Sky hooked into OpenCape about a year ago, he said, “Invariably, Comcast would go down in the middle of lunch. It would happen two or three times a month. I’d lose thousands of dollars, and hundreds of customers.”
“I”d call Comcast and end up on the phone tree and all of a sudden they tell you it was a temporary outage.” In the meantime, he said, with a digital order system and a modern system requiring credit card transactions, “it stops us dead in our tracks.”
“Customers don’t care,” he said. “They somehow think it’s our fault.”
And, he noted that the Cape is a tourist-based economy. “Our season is, at best, 90 days of good action,” said Gura. “To lose a single day is to lose in excess of ten grand,” he said.
And it trickles into the future for a tourist economy, he said. “They can go other places. Any little thing for people on vacation has potential to turn them off,” and make them want to go somewhere else on their next vacation.
And so, with his business depending on it, he said, he paid the installation cost and signed up with OpenCape. After the installation cost, he said the cost for the service is equal. “I was paying $297 a month for what Comcast claimed to be their bestest, fastest. I’m paying $300 a month with OpenCape.”
If there is an outage, which there was once during a storm, Gura said, “I can call Steve’s cellphone, and Open Cape will come fix it.”
The same credit card connectivity problem was happening on Main Street Falmouth, said Michael Galasso, a member and former chairman of the Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC).
The EDIC, said Galasso, was “getting information from our merchants on Main Street that during the summer, the height of the season, they had an extremely hard time running their credit card purchases.”
Thus, the EDIC has hired OpenCape to wire all of Main Street starting on June 1. It should be finished by August 1, he said.
The project will be paid for with $80,000 in state money and a $200,000 loan from Mass Development, Galasso said. The fiber was already reaching to the Falmouth Fire Station and so it was “within an arms reach” of solving the merchant’s problems, he said.
Galasso said the types of businesses encountering problems processing credit cards included “furniture stores, hardware stores, clothing stores and restaurants. They are all on the same circuit and they were all having the same problems.”
Merchants will still have the option to stay with Comcast. But soon it will be an option, not the only choice, he said.
Hospitals, schools and scientific institutions have access to OpenCape. Businesses are getting more and more access.
But what about the broader market? How about all the people who work from home?
As Hunt pointed out, “Cape Cod has always been an artisan community. For 100 plus years, artisans and artists have been coming here and now many of them are into video and other graphic type media.”
Galasso said the Falmouth EDIC is thinking of exactly those types of people, and all others in town. “We’re trying to get every home in Falmouth connected to OpenCape,” he said.
“We’re trying to get every home in Falmouth connected to OpenCape.” – Michael Galasso, a member and former chairman of the Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC)
“With more and more people working in their homes, it’s an amenity that we’re not fully taking advantage of. This will help businesses grow on the Cape. Especially since we’re a scientific community,” he said. “Those folks transmit a lot of data.”
Galasso said Falmouth could have OpenCape available to every resident in town and pay for it with subscriptions in 10 to 15 years. “We are starting at the center and working our way out,” he said of the EDIC plan to get OpenCape to residents of Falmouth.
“It can be a great economic development tool,” he said. And, he said, “if it’s priced competitively, it can be successful… For Comcast to serve us in a suburban area like this, they’re not going to do that unless they get a lot of pressure,” said Galasso.
There are many people all over Cape Cod who say they would would like to see OpenCape as a public competitor to the monopoly that they say is Comcast.
The issue is the installation cost. “The estimate is that it costs between 100 to 150 million dollars if we hooked up every residential building on Cape Cod,” said Hunt. “The only thing keeping us from doing that is 100 to 150 million dollars.”
Johnston said connecting to every home on the Cape would cost $100 million. “I don’t have $100 million,” he said. “I just got cash flow positive.”
As Hunt said, the question of all that money is, “Is that a reasonable investment, and is there payback there?”
For Johnston, the challenge for residential service is different than that for business. “How do I deliver good, not great, but good reliable affordable internet service for everyone?” he said.
“The reason we are doing the pilots is to prove what works better. The reason to do the pilots is to show towns what’s possible.” – Steve Johnston, Executive Director of OpenCape
Three pilot programs starting this fall aim to start to answer that question, he said. One will be a fully-wired pilot program, one will be wireless, and one will be a hybrid of both, said Johnston.
The idea, said Johnston, is that upcoming tests in Woods Hole, Hyannis and the Outer Cape will begin to solve the riddle of the best way to use fiber optic to bring high speed internet to residential areas.
Johnston does not expect to ever wire the entire Cape, especially those on two acre-plus lots, but there are areas of the Cape that are ripe for expansion, he said.
“Provincetown is incredibly dense. It’s a mile wide by two miles long. It’s our Manhattan,” said Johnston. Of course, this particular “Manhattan” can be amazingly full of people at the height of summer, but it is much different in the middle of winter.
And that is Cape Cod. Still, the hope is that fiber will be an economic driver to bring people, and keep people here in those other months.
“The whole point of the pilots is that I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Johnston.
One of the questions Johnston wants to answer is about reliability. “I want to know how many guys with trucks and ladders do I need.”
“The reason we are doing the pilots is to prove what works better,” said Johnston. “The reason to do the pilots is to show towns what’s possible.”
“We’ve been working and investing a lot in transforming the customer experience,” said Goodman.
Goodman talked about “digital apps for both residential and business customers. We also have a network operations center in Massachusetts,” he said, noting it was local.
This local center, he said, “ensures customers are receiving products and services they pay for each month. Often times, they are able to stop a potential issue before the customer even notices it.”
“We’re focused on reliability.” – Comcast Spokesman Marc Goodman
“We know our services are valuable, and that our customers are passionate about how they connect,” he said.
Barry Bader, vice president of Comcast Business for the greater Boston region, said, said Comacst has “more than 100 employees on the Cape & Islands, and a large call center just over the bridge, plus two sales teams.”
As for surges and slower performance, Goodman said, “We’ve architected our network to handle and deliver on peak performance and scalability to offer faster speeds.”
Finally, asked about OpenCape, Goodman said, “I’m not going to focus on any specific competition. I appreciate the invitation. We’re focused on reliability.”
We recently uploaded this 23-minute video mashup of some impressive, high-level conversations that occurred at the recent CCYP Shape The Cape Summit, covering issues from professionalism to hiring to housing to networking and more.
To upload this 23-minute video, using our home (okay, Cape Cod Wave world headquarters) Comcast service, it took about 14 hours.
We asked Orbison, who participated in the conference and is in the video, how long it would have taken to upload it if we had driven to Hyannis from Falmouth and uploaded it with the OpenCape fiber at CapeSpace.
“About two minutes,” she said.
For more stories like this, please see Longform Stories
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Please see, a novel about a big real estate development in a small Cape Cod town, from Cape Cod Wave, YOU CAN’T SELL RIGHT FIELD, A Cape Cod Novel