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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.

MassBroadband 123 Complete in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) just announced that the 1,200-mile fiber network MassBroadband 123 is now complete.

According to the official announcement, the middle-mile network will eventually serve over 1,200 community anchor institutions. The open access network, constructed with $45.4 million in stimulus funding and an additional $40 million in state bond proceeds, lit up in March 2013. Schools, hospitals, and municipal government are some of the entities already connected.

Communities with a history of little or no middle-mile options will now have some level of connectivity via MassBroadband 123. The Commonwealth hopes to attract last-mile providers to connect homes and businesses, something we have yet to see succeed. We are afraid a more likely scenario will be a few providers seeking to connect the highest revenue customers with no intention to connect everyone, an outcome that would perversely make it more expensive to build financially sustainable networks in these areas.

A few places, like Leverett and Princeton, plan to invest in their own publicly owned infrastructure and will have the option to connect to the outside world through MassBroadband 123. This is an excellent approach that we applaud because it leads us to universal access.

According to a Bershire Eagle article, the state legislature plans to bring more funding to the initiative for last-mile connections:

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

In our experience, middle mile networks change the economics of the operating costs for fiber networks, not the capital costs. The high upfront capital costs are what deter investment and robust middle mile networks do little to change that reality, which is why communities are smart to step up and make the necessary investments.

In Western Mass, Holyoke Gas and Electric Brings Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode #65

Holyoke Gas & Electric has been connecting community anchor institutions and local businesses in Western Massachusetts with fiber networks for years. Rather than using exception access to the Internet as a competitive advantage over more poorly connected neighbors, the Municipal Light Plant (in the parlance of Massachusetts law) is helping nearby towns to establish their own networks.

I met Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas in a lunch with people building community owned networks in Leverett and Princeton in late August. He joins me for episode #65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Holyoke approach, its network, and enthusiasm for assisting others in the region to improve access to the Internet.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 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.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

MassBroadband 123 Lights Up in Rural Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative's (MBI) MassBroadband 123 network is becoming a reality. On March 28th, MBI lit up the first 35-mile stretch, linking Sandisfield, traveling through Otis, and connecting at the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park hub. The inaugural connection was the first in a series of build outs that are scheduled to be completed by July 2013 [PDF of map and schedule].

MassBroadband 123 is the middle mile open access network snaking its way across central and western Massachusetts. The project, funded with $40 million in state bond proceeds and $45.4 million in stimulus funding, is scheduled to bring the 1,200 mile network to the anchor institutions in approximately 120 communities. While MassBroadband 123 will not offer last-mile connectivity to residents, it will bring the possibility to many rural areas that have little or no options today. Communities with their own networks, like Leverett, will be able to connect with MassBroadband 123. Hopes are that the open access nature of the network will inspire private providers to offer more last-mile connections.

MassLive.com reported on the first use of the network by school children in rural Otis. Kids at Farmington River Elementary School connected in Spanish with kids from Columbia and learned about physics from the NASA Goddard Space Fight Center in Maryland:

“It was really excellent,” said Mary G. Turo, principal of Farmington River Elementary, in a phone interview. 

...

“We are a little isolated,” Turo said. “Having the capability to bring the outside world to us, you cannot put a price on it. We want our kids to be ready for the future. In order to be ready to for the future they have to know what is going on outside their hometown .”

Judith Dumont, director of MBI, compares the expansion of the network to government efforts to expand electricity in the 1930s. From the article:

Back then, the profit motive wasn’t enough to bring electricity to small towns, so the government stepped in to help build economies.

“This project says it is not OK for these communities to be left out of the 21st century economy,” she said.

While we agree with Judith regarding the need for public and private investment, we would go a bit further to note that when the federal government stepped in with electrification, it made sure that the connections were controlled by the community via coops and local governments. We wish our present federal government learned those lessons too and didn't believe that throwing money at Wall Street firms would solve rural problems.

We believe MassBroadband 123 is an important tool to help rural Massachusetts communities but we believe further public investment will be necessary to make sure everyone is connected. And where public dollars are spent, networks should be accountable to the community - now and in the future.

Princeton, Massachusetts, Considering Building Own Fiber Network

We recently reached out to Princeton, Massachusetts, after reading several local news articles about the city's ambition to improve broadband in the community. Phyllis Booth of the Landmark has been covering the story. Community leaders recently mailed survey cards to every residence in town and put the survey online to provide ample opportunity for feedback.

With survey results complied, the answer from respondents was an overwhelming, "Yes! We want better Internet!" The Princeton Broadband Committee has since made the results available in a series of visuals that express the community's experiences with speed, customer satisfaction, desirable applications, and other respondent concerns. Detailed survey results are available for review [PDF].

The results come as no surprise to Stan Moss, Board of Selectmen Member who is also on the Broadband Committee. "Everybody has tried everything," says Stan when he describes the survey outcome. The community of 3,300 has access to DSL in about 49% of households and other choices are satellite, dial-up, and wireless. According to Moss, Princeton DSL customers averaged a D+. From the Landmark article:

“Once we invest in the fiber it’s pretty good. It’s not costly to upgrade in the future, it’s reliable once it’s in place,” said [Broadband Committee Member John] Kowaleski. “If the town doesn’t do this, no one will,” he added. The town has contacted Verizon and Charter and “we’re not even on their plan,’’ said Kowaleski. “Princeton has insurmountable challenges. It isn’t profitable for Verizon or any other company to provide the infrastructure to give us the service,” said Kowaleski.

Moss says he receives calls on a regular basis from residents who want to know when the city is going to provide FTTH. Most of those calls come from people who work from home or have school age children.

Princeton, Massachusetts Map

K-8 Schools in Princeton currently use slow and unreliable T1 connections and bringing fiber to the students is a high priority. High school students attend in a nearby consolidated school. Often prospective families tour the local school and are thrilled to see small class sizes and an intimate setting. "When they learn that there is no high speed Internet for their children, you never see them again," says Moss.

While not set in stone, The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI) plans to bring its middle mile network to the local Thomas Prince School. The public library, the town hall, the public safety facility, the senior center, and the municipal light department will likely also be connected through MBI. Princeton's Broadband Committee wants to use that momentum to get households connected and capitalize on the benefits of ubiquitous access.

Real estate professionals in Princeton expect a direct benefit from a fiber network. They attribute lower property values in Princeton, in part, to the lack of high speed connectivity. There are a number of prospective telecommuters and home based businesses who have also spoken out in favor of a municipal FTTH network. One entrepreneur in Princeton who would like to work out of his home, spends $2,000 on office space in another city just to have productive Internet speeds.

Princeton is looking to Leverett, Massachusetts, as an example. (Btw, Princeton is not the first community we have encountered watching Leverett's process - way to go Leverett!) The Broadband Committee sees similarities between Princeton and Leverett and has watched the rural community as it move ahead. Both are rural, tree covered, hilly, and charming says Moss. "When I see some one new in town I ask them how they come to move to Princeton because you don't end up here by accident."

Readers will recall that Leverett plans to fund the project with a municipal bond. Debt service on the bond will be paid with revenue from the network and a property tax increase, about 6%. The community has already voted to approve the measure. Princeton believes a similar approach will work for them. From the Landmark:

We believe we can do this for even less than people are paying right now for Internet, said Kowaleski. “If the town funds it with a municipal bond we could have this in place by January 2015,” he added.

...

The committee is estimating monthly cost for fiber to the home would be $63.30. With a 20-year bond to pay for the buildout, the cost for the average homeowner (based on a home valued at $303,280) for taxes would be $284.90 per year, for a 20- year average.

According to the committee, the average cost today for subscribers for the Internet and phone bill is between $101 and $130, depending on whether the user has satellite, DSL or wireless. The new network cost would be $63.30 per month, plus $25.27 per month for the tax cost for the bond, for a monthly cost of $88.57.

Princeton Broadband Logo

While there may be some similarities with Leverett, Moss notes that Princeton has fewer more households over twice as many road miles, creating a more sparsely populated community. Fortunately, it also has an advantage not found in Leverett - a chance to hang their cable expeditiously.

Moss tells us that Princeton has worked with the local municipal light plant to reach an arrangement to speed up the process. Leverett has to wait for Verizon to prepare poles for the new fiber, estimated to take six to twelve months. Princeton's municipal light plant will allow fiber optic cable to be hung in the places reserved for power line attachments.

To save money and speed up the process, the Broadband Committee will take on the task of documenting utility poles. From another Leader article:

At the Monday, March 11 meeting, committee chairman Steve Cullen told selectmen that committee members and volunteers will do the work, saving taxpayers as much as $50,000. “We have the technology to do this,” said Cullen. “We’ll look at every single road and utility pole, take photos and bring the information to an engineering company to cut back on the time line.” Documenting the poles accounts for approximately 60 to 70 percent of the expense related to design costs, said Cullen.

The next step will be a series of community meetings to report the results of the survey. Moss expects the Broadband Committee will approach residents at the May 14th Town Meeting where they will ask for approval to fund a network design. Moss is optimistic and believes the city may be hanging fiber optic cable as early as October.

Regardless of what approach they take, the people who live there are hungry for something better. We found one survey question and the results especially revealing. When asked "What Internet speed would prompt residents to change Internet providers?," 60% of respondents answered, "Any speed, as long as it's faster."

Rural Leverett Network in Western Massachusetts Moves Forward

Leverett, Massachusetts' broadband initiative has moved to the next phase in bringing fiber to residents. The town selectboard recently decided on a bidder to build the community owned network. G4S designed the network and also works with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) as it brings a middle mile fiber network to towns across the western half of the state [PDF of service area].

An article in The Recorder alerted us to the development. Readers will recall that Leverett townspeople voted to ok a modest property tax increase as a way to help finance the ftth build out. From the article:

Indeed, after years of trying to convince private business to develop and offer high-speed telecommunication service in rural western Massachusetts, Leverett’s first-of-its kind network is being built with the help of a $40 million state bond, $47 million in federal stimulus funding and the town’s willingness to borrow to build infrastructure to attract service.

D’Errico said the cost of the project should be lower than $300 a year per median $278,000 property owner over 20 years.

...

...D’Errico said the $300 annual tax addition for the median value property is likely far lower than what residents are paying for their telephone, satellite dishes and cable service connections, and that having the town own the infrastructure likely means that the service contracts should also be a fraction of what they would cost otherwise.

Before construction can start, utility poles will need to be made ready for placement of the fiber optic cable. While this stage of the prep work is expected to take up to six months, hanging the cable would only take about three months.

MBI Logo

Leverett is inspiring other Massachusetts communities, who also want to own the infrastructure that will allow them to connect to MBI's network, MassBroadband 123.

In fact, Montague selectmen on Monday said they support a move by residents of their town’s Chestnut Hill section — which is contiguous to North Leverett — as they seek to connect with Leverett’s network. The North Leverett Firehouse, the connection point for Leverett’s fiber network to plug into MBI’s fiber network, would be the source of the connection into the system the roughly 50 Montague households seek to build.

As more local communities see how Leverett and similar communities overcome obstacles to achieve connectivity, we are confident that municipal networks will be options they consider.

An editorial in the Recorder points out how local leadership has played an instrumental role in the plan to expand connectivity in town and encourage other communities across the state:

However, it’s not only state government that has a role here. Leverett would not be poised to complete access without town officials seeing the role the town must play and an acceptance on the part of a solid majority of residents willing to see taxpayer money go toward this project.

Perhaps as the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative continues its work to provide access elsewhere, other towns will see that they, too, need to be part of the financial solution in wiring their community. Part of any persuasion, we think should start with what the governor said in October 2007. “Today’s global economy requires that every corner of our commonwealth be wired for the 21st century ... The digital divide that persists in too many Massachusetts communities has gone on for long enough.”

Thanks to the citizens of Leverett, we are closer to finally bridging that divide.

We will bring more on Leverett as the project progresses.

Community Broadband Bits 2 - Wired West Podcast

In our second podcast, we have interviewed Monica Webb with the Wired West Initiative in rural western Massachusetts. Like our first podcast, this should be an excellent resource for those who are still in the early stages of community broadband and seeking ideas or inspiration.

We continue to be interested in your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is fifteen minutes long and can be played below on this page or you can subscribe via iTunes or via a different tool using this feed.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music.

Leverett, Massachusetts, Ponders Community-Owned Network

Leverett, Massachusetts, is one step closer to a community owned FTTH network. The town of 2,000 will have weekly public information meetings until the Annual Town Meeting scheduled for April 28, 2012. If the required $3.6 million funding is approved at the meeting, the city will issue a Request For Proposals to build the network.

The 1 gig network is slated to be an aerial build, except where existing utilities are underground, in which instances, fiber cable will also be placed underground. Leverett plans to use a $40,0000 planning grant, obtained from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, to hire G4S Technology to design the last mile fiber-optic network to connect to MBI's stimulus-funded middle mile. The middle mile project is scheduled to be completed in June, 2013, and Leverett plans to be ready to connect soon after. The goal is to have every home connected with fiber by 2014.

Whereas most communities explicitly choose not to use tax revenue to pay for a community network, Leverett's present plan is for a slight increase in local taxes to assist in the financing. The town will borrow the amount necessary to build the network and pay it back over 20 years using a combination of tax revenue and revenues from the new broadband service. Peter d'Errico, Chair of the MBI Grant Broadband Committee observes that homeowners' net spending figures will decline once the system is in place. From the article:

A town survey concluded a municipal network could offer better Internet and phone service at far cheaper rates than private providers, he said.

"It will be a little more on their tax bill and a lot less on their Internet bill, so overall they will be pay less," d'Errico said.

Leverett Map

According to the Broadband Committee, approximately 37% of households in Leverett use slow, sketchy satellite, 23% use dial-up, 20% are on DSL, 14% use wireless, and 6% of households have no internet access. Some households, although theoretically accessible via satellite, never get a connection because of trees and the picturesque, hilly Massachusetts countryside.

Leverett is situated in the Five College area of Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. The town is rich in history, but now finds that, because of their disconnect from reliable internet, they are losing opportunities usually found in towns that neighbor such academic centers. Housing sales are impacted, as are renting opportunities. From the article:

"Junior faculty, graduate and undergraduate students that normally would be very interested in renting in a lovely town like Leverett are just unable to do it," said [Richard Nathhorst, a member of Leverett's Broadband Committee], "To be able to work or complete their studies they need access to the Internet."

In addition to lack of internet access, the town has had longstanding problems with their telephone service, provided by Verizon. Last year, the State Department of Communications ordered the telco to assess and repair the telecommunications infrastructure in nearly 100 western Massachusetts communities, including Leverett.

"People are realizing that private companies are not making enough money moving into rural areas," d'Errico said of the capital investment needed to bring broadband to smaller communities. "The only other alternative available is a municipal network."

Leverett's plan is to contract with a two separate entities, one to provide network management and services and another to provide infrastructure maintenance.

Wired West

We have previously reported on WiredWest, a consortium of towns in western Massachusetts that have come together to form a regional network. WiredWest has been instrumental in organzing local communities, including Leverett, to work together on a jointly owned, open access FTTH network connecting everyone. The Wired West efforts have included $100,000 worth of mapping, $30,000 in engineering, and $20,000 in marketing, project management and financial services over the past six months. However, most Wired West communities are seeking funding for the network that would not require borrowing backed by the local tax base.

Leverett says it is committed to further collaboration with Wired West, but its present plan involves finding a single provider to operate on the network rather than the open access approach embraced by Wired West. Some recommend that new networks start with a single service provider to get up and running before later inviting additional service providers to the network. Working with an experienced service provider right away can offer more confidence to potential investors.

Residents have responded favorably to the proposal, including the increased taxes, and officials expect a high take rate. Such an approach is much more consistent with the spirit of local self-reliance than those who continue holding out hope for more federal grants.

Jason Whittet, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, is officially on board with public ownership of broadband:

"What you are seeing come to fruition with this Town Meeting is a town that takes a lead in creating its own destiny when it comes to broadband."

Leverett wants to be the leader and they clearly have the ambition to realize that goal:

"We are showing the way," d'Errico said. "The network we build will become a template for other towns."

The last of three scheduled public meetings with the Broadband Committee to discuss the proposed project will be Sunday night, April 15th at the Town Hall, 9 Montague Road at 7 p.m.

A local ABC station reported on Leverett's plan: