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Mount Washington Muni: Permission to Move Ahead Granted

The town of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, has successfully streamlined its ability to invest in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

On January 22nd, Governor Charlie Baker signed a home-rule bill specifically granting the tiny town of 124 residents a special authority:

"Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the town of Mount Washington may own, operate, maintain, manage or hire others to do so on its behalf, and to take any reasonable action necessary to establish and operate broadband high speed internet infrastructure and services without the establishment of a municipal light plant."

Another Underserved Rural Town

Mount Washington is located in the southwest corner of the state; much of the community is covered by the Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett State Reservation. Large incumbents do not feel investment in fast, affordable, reliable network infrastructure would pay off. Due to a small population, the Taconic Mountains, and thickly wooded geography, any return on investment will take longer in Mount Washington than in urban areas.

Brian Tobin from the town's Select Board told WAMC:

“The town of Mount Washington is about as underserved as you can get in terms of broadband,” Tobin said. “Some people have long-distance wifi and others have satellite internet, but neither of those are satisfactory and it’s certainly not a 21st century solution to having reliable broadband.”

The community recognized that if they want 21st century connectivity they would have to build a municipal network.

Not Sold On Wired West

Many other communities in western Massachusetts have committed to joining the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). The MLP is a state-required municipal entity responsible for the administration of a municipal network. Wired West officials describe it as a "cooperative of MLPs."

This new law, which applies only to Mount Washington, allows the community to move forward with their project without establishing an MLP. Tobin told WAMC that the community did not feel comfortable committing to Wired West. They wanted to be solely responsible for their own telecommunications future and:

“We also believed, or at least I did, that we could easily be at the end of the line, because we are physically, in terms of getting it built out,” Tobin said. “We thought we could probably move faster on our own and so far I think about right about that.”

Mount Washington appears to have made a prudent choice. The current feud between Wired West and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) over the release of $40 million of state funds has halted deployment of the regional network.

Confident Rural Town

The town has already released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for an FTTH network; responses are due March 14th. They have set aside $250,000 for the project and are exploring additional funding options such as borrowing and a possible grant from MBI.

Tobin told the Berkshire Eagle that a town-wide poll in 2015 resulted in overwhelming support for the project:

"There are a handful of residents who have satellite Internet," said Tobin. "But we believe that even they will support this, if only in terms of improved property values."

The final town approval for the plan will happen at an upcoming regular or special town meeting. That will require a two-thirds majority," and while I don't want to speak for the voters, I'm confident we'll get that."

Shoot-Out Over the WiredWest: MBI Pulls Funding in Massachusetts Saga

Officials from WiredWest Communications Cooperative in western Massachusetts spent years working with small towns creating a collaborative plan to develop a regional fiber network. The deadline for participation was, January 9th, a little more than a month away, and even though the trail had been thorny, the path now seemed clear. Suddenly, the state revoked critical funding, sending the carefully planned and negotiated project into shambles.

WiredWest Coop Born, Reborn, Ready to Ride

More than five years ago, a group of small towns in Western Massachusetts formed a communications cooperative that evolved into the WiredWest Communications Cooperative Corporation. Their goal was similar to that of any cooperative organization: use the collective resources of the member towns to construct a much needed utility - a fiber-to-the-home network (FTTH) - that could address a persistent problem for a group rural communities - the lack of quality Internet access.

The number of participating towns in the coop has fluctuated over the years; 44 towns are currently official members. Its business plan and operating agreement have also changed as member towns come to consensus on what presents the best path for their local needs.

As the coop refined its model, the business plan, and the operating agreement, WiredWest volunteers worked to secure early subscriber commitments from residents and businesses. Each community obtained a certain threshold of commitment in order to join the coop. To date, WiredWest communities have obtained approximately 7,000 early subscribers.

Each town must establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), a process consistent with Massachusetts State Law. The MLP is the entity that is responsible for owning and operating a municipal fiber network. WiredWest describes itself as a cooperative of MLPs with delegates from all 44 member towns as decision makers. The coop's business model also requires a series of votes to ensure local accountability before a town can be considered a member of WiredWest:

  • 40% of townsfolk have to pledge to take the service and each submit a $49 deposit
  • Each town needs to pass a vote by 2/3rds majority to join the coop and commit to funding the venture
  • After that, each town is responsible for choosing its own best course of funding (whether municipal bonding or not). 

The WiredWest operating agreement requires each member community to commit for a period of 10 years. If member towns decide to then withdraw from the coop, the other member towns will buy them out. According to the agreement, WiredWest will use revenue from the network for operating expenses and, once earnings are at a break-even point, excess revenue will be used to pay the member towns' debt service. The network as a whole will belong to all member towns of the cooperative.

With the roster at 44 and each community seemingly satisfied with the cooperative model, business plan, and operating agreement, cooperative member towns chose January 9th as the deadline to approve the operating agreement.

A Look Back

MBI's 1,200-mile open access network, MassBroadband 123 was completed in 2014. The middle-mile network was funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding and state funding. The hope was that private providers would then build out the last-mile to subscribers which would connect to MassBroadband 123. When that plan did not come to fruition, the state agreed to supply more funding to jump start local projects in order to get residents and businesses connected.

The local communities needed the funding, but taking the money put them in the position of meeting the needs of a powerful partner - the partner that controlled the much needed funds on which the entire project depended.

In June 2014, the state legislature provided addition funding for rural connectivity in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state entity that owns and operates the middle mile MassBroadband123 fiber network, was chosen as steward of $40 million, a large percentage of that funding.

logo-mass-broadband-institute.png

For the past several years MBI has met with WiredWest board members, provided funds for a planning grant, and helped the group develop plans to connect the WiredWest network to MassBroadband123. In April 2015, MBI conditionally promised up to 40% of the funding for the WiredWest project; the funding would cover approximately one-third of the estimated $120 million to deploy the network. Word of the state grants helped build momentum and towns that wavered in the past decided to join the cooperative.

Throughout the talks with MBI, WiredWest representatives continued to meet with local communities to discuss the possibility of joining the coop. For towns that were committed to joining the effort, WiredWest offered advice on how to proceed. Most of the communities needed to form an MLP and all of the towns needed to take the proper steps to fund their share of the network costs. 

The 44 member towns of WiredWest intended to split 2/3 of the project’s costs, and the remaining $40 million would have been covered by state and federal grants distributed through MBI. In keeping with state law, when a municipality needs to bond to fund a project, the decision must be taken up at a series of town meetings. The process requires community involvement and takes places over the course of months in Massachusetts. Over 20 towns had already committed to municipal bonding for the funding by the end of 2015.

State Funding: Here One Day, Gone The Next

The plan appeared to be on track. A consulting firm hired by WiredWest to review the business plan reported that it was sound and financially feasible. As local officials prepared to commit to the operating agreement, MBI contacted each of the 44 communities urging them not to sign on. MBI released a statement saying WiredWest would require “fundamental revision in order to succeed as a reliable framework.”

As part of their announcement, MBI stated that it would not release the $40 million in state funds for the project.

MBI also released a more thorough report, written with the help of a consultant, detailing their concerns with the plan. MBI determined the WiredWest plan to be “overly optimistic and perhaps unachievable” in its projections for the network’s expected subscriber base and revenues versus costs. MBI stated that is was concerned with the accuracy of projected take rates due to the percentage of seasonal properties in the region.

map-wired-west-2016.pngMBI also took issue with the cooperative structure of WiredWest and the fact that individual towns would not exclusively own the infrastructure in their own communities. MBI Director Eric Nakajima told the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Nakajima said that WiredWest’s operating agreement contradicts a “Last Mile Broadband Policy” approved by MBI’s board in July [2015]. This policy states: “Last Mile local and regional broadband networks, having been constructed entirely through investments by the (state) and local residents, either as property-taxpayers, renters, or broadband subscribers, will be owned by their respective municipalities.”

Local public ownership is certainly the ideal when it comes to FTTH networks but where a town is small, investing in its own network can be impractical. Pooling resources in a regional effort like WiredWest may be the only option for rural communities like those clustered in western Massachusetts.

Ultimately, Nakajima wrote “the current draft of WiredWest’s operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the Commonwealth, the towns, or their residents.” 

WiredWest immediately scheduled a meeting about the withdrawl of promised funds. A coop chairman commented on the issue of ownership, throwing in a stab at the age-old conflict of state vs. local control:

“The ownership issue has been an ongoing issue, but WiredWest is nothing but the towns,” said Steve Nelson, chairman of WiredWest’s legal committee. “The question is, do the towns own individual little pieces, or can the towns pool their money into a larger, more sustainable network? The towns are putting up almost two-thirds of the money. We shouldn’t be dictated to by a bunch of Boston bureaucrats.”

WiredWest Responds

In response to MBI, about 75 WiredWest officials and town delegates crafted a rebuttal to MBI’s critique and wrote a response to MBI’s more specific breakdown of the business plan. They corrected what they felt were several mischaracterizations of their business plan.

For one, WiredWest’s consultant previously told them their projected overall costs for the network were “conservatively estimated.” In addition, WiredWest rejected MBI’s assertion that the projected take rate for the network is unrealistic. Instead, WiredWest said they expected their take rate to be in the 75 to 85% range, similar to the take rate that the nearby Town of Leverett has reached for its municipal network. While such a rate may seem high for a municipal network that faces competition from an incumbent, where there is no competition it is not so surprising, as in Leverett. WiredWest’s projections suggest this take rate to far exceed the 47% take rate they say is necessary for the network to at least break even.

In the rebuttal, WiredWest also took exception with MBI’s suggestion the 44 member towns will transfer ownership of the network to WiredWest and effectively lose out on the network’s potential profits while still being responsible for the debt obligation for the network. From WiredWest:

“It is misleading to imply that WiredWest...is an entity separate from the towns that would operate the network on their behalf. It is a cooperative of the towns, by the towns and for the towns. WiredWest is nothing but the towns.”

WiredWest further found fault with MBI’s claim that the coop model violated the state policies and regulations making it ineligible for funding. Coop Board Members especially criticized the claim that the coop structure did made the entity ineligible for funding due to MBI's Last Mile Broadband Policy passed around the same time WiredWest was changing its structure. WiredWest representatives felt that they had been excluded from any input into the new policy and that the implementation of such policy directly undermined local control and the will of the towns.

"Git Along, Little Doggie…"

As MBI and the WiredWest communities meet to decide how to proceed, the state agency encounters skepticism, frustration, and local ire.

fiber-town.jpg

On December 16th, an MBI scheduled meeting in Greenfield to present the consultant report was filled to capacity. People in the lobby bearing "We Want Wired West" signs had to be turned away so stood outside in angry protest.

At the meeting, MBI's consultant presented a series of slides suggesting that the WiredWest financials omitted a number of necessary expenditures. Jim Drawe, a Cummington resident who developed the cooperative's financial model, took issue with the consultant's analysis and pointed out that the consultants, "don't know us and don't know our region."

Kimberly Longey, an alternate WiredWest delegate from Plainfield, recently wrote to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, describing the need for flexibility from MBI. In small communities like Plainfield, she writes, MBI's solution of a city financed and owned municipal network is not a realistic option. There are only 648 residents and the town operating budget is only $1 million. Plainfield has voted repeatedly to join WiredWest because they do not have the means, financially or otherwise, to build or manage their own network. She writes:

We have more than 25 square miles of township and more than 50 miles of road, most of it dirt...[WiredWest] is a cooperative of some of the smallest, poorest and hardest to wire towns joining with wealthier communities to band together to build a regional network able to serve them all....Towns have the right and responsibility to choose their broadband solution.

My town has chosen WiredWest.

Meetings between MBI and WiredWest are scheduled as the two entities try to move forward to bring better connectivity to the people of western Massachusetts.

WiredWest map and Fibertown image courtesy of WiredWest.

This article written with considerable contributions from Hannah Trostle and Tom Ernste.

LeverettNet Meets Demand for Better Connectivity in MA

On October 2nd, a group of residents, business owners, and educators met with elected officials to celebrate the early success of LeverettNet. The municipal gigabit fiber network now serves 650 of 800 households in the Massachusetts town of 1,800.

This spring, the network began serving limited areas of town, offering telephone service and gigabit Internet access. LeverettNet's instant success is no surprise, considering a number townsfolk depended on unreliable, slow dial-up service over antiquated copper infrastructure for years. Some in town used DSL, satellite, and wireless devices; others had no Internet access at all. Telephone service was equally dismal - sometimes the community would lose service when it rained.

Leverett connects to MassBroadband 123, the statewide middle-mile network deployed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Greenfield, Massachusetts Internet service provider Crocker Communications, is partnering with Leverett to offer gigabit service via the publicly owned infrastructure. 

The community chose to fund the network with a modest property tax increase and from revenue collected from subscribers. After they did the math, Leverett realized they could obtain better, faster, more reliable services for less if they built their own network. Take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Broadband Committee and Select Board, in episode #113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

At the celebration, d'Errico described the way the community came together:

“The project has been huge for the town and mostly undertaken by our volunteer broadband committee, which met weekly for four years to make it happen,” said Peter d’Errico of the Leverett Broadband Committee. “With each phase taken a step at a time we have managed to complete something we all thought was a dream when it was first conceived. Now that it’s complete, residents are thrilled to see what they can do at home on the Internet.” 

Leverett residents are already using their new network to work from home, explore educational opportunities for their kids, and discover ways to make the gig work for them. At the October event, a number of elected officials in attendence recognized that fiber networks give small towns an edge that can draw in more businesses and more people:

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, observed that 13 of the 19 towns he represents in the Legislature are either unserved or underserved.

“You’re the first. You’re blazing a new trail here,” Kulik said.

But he cautioned that it might give people impulse to buy property in Leverett if their own towns don’t make the investment.

“If they don’t do what you do, they’re all going to move to Leverett,” Kulik said.

Holyoke Success Spurs Interest in Mass Muni Networks - Community Broadband Bits Episode 162

A few weeks back, we noted an excellent new report on Holyoke Municipal Light Plant in Massachusetts published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This week, we discuss the report and lessons learned from it with David Talbot, Fellow at the Berkman Center.

David gives us some of the key takeaways from the report and we discuss what other municipal light plants are doing, including how Holyoke Gas & Electric is using the state owned middle mile network to partner with other municipalities like Greenfield and Leverett.

Finally, David offers some insight into how the municipal light plants that have not yet engaged in expanding Internet access think about the challenges of doing so. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) episode 65, where we interviewed Tim Haas of Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

WiredWest Grows: Roster of Towns Up to 22

Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.

According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.

Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:

A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.

Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:

Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.

Communities in western Massachusetts are each taking up authorization needed to cover their share of the connectivity project. All but one of 23 towns voting thus far have exhibited strong support. In Montgomery - that one town that did not support the proposal - the measure lost by only two votes, reported the Berkshire Eagle. Chesterfield and Goshen approved funding earlier this month, both to big crowds of voters. Leyden approved their participation at a meeting in May with a 90-33 vote.

Of the 45 towns eligible to participate and obtain state funding, 33 Select Boards have committed to presenting bond authorization measures before their voters. Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest's Board of Directors told the Eagle in June:

"Ultimately, the overwhelming votes so far are a resounding affirmation that the citizens, businesses and institutions of Western Mass. towns underserved by broadband are ready, willing and eager to move forward with the WiredWest regional fiber network."

We spoke with Webb in May in episode #149 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Local residents who were tired of dial-up and satellite established the cooperative as a way to band together and turn up the volume on their collective voice. Each community has representation on the executive board and will receive a share of state funding designated for the project.

At the meeting in New Salem, the town's Broadband Committee Chair MaryEllen Kennedy told told the audience:

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire, another reason we thought a government co-op was the way to go."

The next step in New Salem and in other Massachusetts communities where voters have approved borrowing is to hold a special town election to approve an exemption to Massachusetts' Proposition 2 1/2 tax levy limit.

Princeton, Mass, Setback in Muni Fiber Quest

Folks in Princeton, Massachusetts have anxiously awaited better broadband for about two years as community leaders explored ways to deploy fiber in the community. According to the Telegram, the wait will be even longer than expected. The tentative deal between Princeton and Matrix Design Group for a public private partnership is over.

As we reported last December, 90 percent of voters attending a special town meeting approved a measure to borrow funds to get deployment started. Princeton planned to use $1.2 million for make-ready measures to pave the way for Matrix to install its FTTH network. The town would not have to pay any more to construct the network, but they would be sacrificing control over the infrastructure.

Apparently, it is this lack of control that soured the proposed deal. From the Telegram article:

But while the town authorized borrowing the money, the broadband light plant commissioners could not secure authorization from bond counsel to borrow the money without an operating agreement that said the town had control over the design, construction, operation, maintenance and pricing of the network.

In a Princeton press release [PDF]:

“Matrix, citing its business model, was not willing to discuss or negotiate its position of network control for a period of 20 years before turning it over to us,”[said Stan Moss, Princeton Selectman and one of the leaders of the initiative].

As part of the agreement between Princeton and Matrix, the city would have obtained control and ownership of the network after 20 years.

Another wrinkle in the plan appeared when Princeton learned that they would not qualify for grant money available from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). The organization is handling distribution of state and federal funds to assist in local deployments. Handing over control of the network to a private party in such a fashion is against the criteria established for grant eligibility.

The Princeton Broadband Committee will petition bond counsel to move forward to approve $1.2 million so the community can continue with make-ready plans. In the mean time, Princeton will get back out there and seek another partner.

While we are sympathetic to the people in Princeton who must wait longer to get fast, affordable, reliable broadband, we are somewhat relieved they have another chance to develop a partnership with more local control. The community may have felt protected because they were not investing in the full cost of a network, but without ownership the community would be unable to ensure it had the level of service it will need.

The Latest on Wired West Rural Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 149

Our second episode of Community Broadband Bits featured an interview with Monica Webb, Chair of the Wired West Board and Spokesperson. Three years later, we are excited to have Monica on the show again to update us on their recent progress.

As we recently noted, the state has decided to contribute significantly to the capital costs of a network connecting these rural towns and the towns are currently voting on whether to move forward.

In our discussion, we discuss Wired West and what it is like to live with very poor Internet access in 2015. You can read all of our coverage of Wired West here. Keep an eye on @Wired_West on Twitter for breaking news - 2 more communities voted to move forward with overwhelming majorities last night!

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Shutesbury and Wendell Residents Ready to Vote on WiredWest

Five months ago volunteers in Shutesbury gathered to inventory local poles to prepare for a possible fiber deployment. Now, more than 40 percent of local households have committed to high-speed Internet access through WiredWest, reports MassLive. Nearby Wendell is also celebrating the 40 percent milestone. According to the article, these are the first communities in the WiredWest region to reach the 40 percent milestone

The next step will be a required two-thirds vote at a town meeting to authorize borrowing to fund the deployment in each community. After that, a majority of voters must approve a debt exclusion in Shutesbury and Wendell to invest in the capital projects as required by state law.

Shutesbury's Broadband Committee Co-chair Gayle Huntress told MassLive that it was no surprise that the community reached the 40 percent threshold needed to move to the next step:

"We are internet-starved," she said. "You should see the people sitting in their cars outside the library and town hall to use the wireless signal."

A small portion of Shutesbury residents already have access to the internet via Verizon DSL, which is built upon deteriorating copper telephone wires, said Huntress. Others use satellite dishes.

Shutesbury is home to approximately 1,800 people on 27 square miles. Wendell is a bit larger at 32 square miles but only 848 people live there.They expect to borrow $1.66 million and $1.19 million respectively to apply to the cost of deployment in their communities. 

Massachusetts has offered to contribute up to 40 percent of the funds to connect rural towns to the state's MassBroadband 123 middle mile network, but local communities must contribute the remainder. In Shutesbury, the total cost of the deployment is estimated at $2.58 million.

Massachusetts Towns Consider WiredWest Opportunity

Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.

Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.

WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.

The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:

[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.

“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. ... The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.

“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.

“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”

Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.

The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.

As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.

A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.

The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.

Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden's alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:

A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.

“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.

Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:

“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. ... They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”

Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December [video below]:

James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”

Princeton Voters Want to Bring FTTH to Their Rural Massachusetts Community

On May 13, Princeton voters decided to continue their municipal network planning. At the annual town meeting, 91.4% of voters passed Article 4 [PDF], authorizing a new Municipal Light Plant. A year ago, voters approved a measure to proceed with planning.

Princeton, a community of 3,300 residents and 1,270 households, has DSL access available to approximately 49% of residents. Satellite, dial-up, and wireless are the other options. 

Entrepreneurs rent office space in nearby communities with better connectivity. Real estate professionals bemoan bad Internet because it lowers property values. A 2013 survey revealed an overwhelming desire to take action. Residents and businesses want an FTTH option.

The Worcester Telegram reported that the community also voted to appropriate $17,000 to make-ready costs, possible legal fees, construction costs for telecommunications huts, and other possible network costs.

"Passing Article 4 will allow us to start negotiations with the vendor," said John Kowaleski of the Broadband Committee. "Without passing this article we will have to wait two years to approach this subject again."  

According to Selectman Stan Moss, the community continues to explore a variety of options. Community leaders have met with several providers to discuss public/private partnerships. Large corporate players, including Charter and Comcast, are not interested in working with Princeton.

The community is also considering a pilot project as a starting point. MassBroadband 123, the network of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will soon serve local schools and several public facilities in Princeton (it should be noted that MBI has been saying "soon" for a few years). The schools will transistion from T1 lines to the new MBI fiber. Community leaders hope to eventually capitalize on the infrastructure to reduce overall costs and expand the reach of Princeton's future infrastructure.