Hawley to pick one of 3 broadband providers

Recorder Staff
Saturday, February 10, 2018

HAWLEY — Handing out a thick packet of information about the three offers to build broadband in town, the complexities of the make-ready process and how the MBI’s “Flexible Grant Program” works, Peter Larkin urged Hawley town officials to be diligent in their research about the long-term impact of any contract they sign for broadband build-out.

Larkin, chairman of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and special adviser to the state Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, briefly walked town officials through the three building proposals and advised them to ask each company for a presentation, so that Hawley’s concerns could be addressed before any contract is signed.

Hawley Communications Committee Chairman Kirby “Lark” Thwing said town officials hoped to reach a decision on which proposal to accept by mid-March. However, he indicated that his committee and the Selectboard were leaning in favor of a proposal by WiValley of Keene, N.H.

“We’ve been looking at this for six years,” said Thwing. “And unless something else is really appealing, WiValley is where we’re going. People like the cost of the subscriptions.”

Referring to the $1.5 million fiber-optic network originally proposed for Hawley six years ago, Thwing said, “Having something that’s not as good as having a Cadillac is a lot better than having nothing.”

WiValley’s regional broadband plan is to “design, build, own, operate and maintain a multi-town communications network” that offers broadband service to at least 96 percent of each town’s homes and businesses. The network would be a hybrid of wireless and fiber technologies 100 percent funded by town broadband grants, without town tax dollars or financial risk. The plan is for a four-town or five-town network that includes Florida, Hawley, Monroe, and Savoy. A separate build-out has been proposed for Middlefield, with Worthington as an optional extension. Monthly subscription rates for home service would start at $60, with unlimited digital phone service costing about $25. Business-class internet service would start at $120 per month.

But the 96 percent build-out is contingent upon getting at least a 35 percent service subscription on the roads where the wireless network is to be installed.

Selectboard Chairman Hussain Hamdan said unequal distribution of broadband would be a problem — for instance, if children in one section of town can do their online homework while children in another section of town had no access. “And what about property values,” he asked. “It would depend upon what neighborhood you’re in.”

“WiValley’s going to be a privately owned network,” said Larkin. “So they’re taking some risk, too.”

Larkin pointed out that rural electrification took 50 years, and that “nobody else is moving down the road that Massachusetts is” when it comes to Last-Mile broadband. He said the state moved away from the “one-size-fits-all” approach of wanting every town to have a town-owned fiber optic broadband network and is open to creative ideas.

Besides requesting a 35 percent “pre-take” subscription for internet, WiValley’s conditions also include “dark fiber rights” to the state’s 123 middle-mile fiber optic network, and rights to “overlash” new fiber to the existing fiber in the middle-mile network.

WiValley proposes to do the five-town build-out for between $2.5 million to $2.7 million, to be paid for through the MBI flexible grant program.

Crocker Communication’s flexible grant program proposal is to build a fiber-to-the-home network in phases, building out 50 percent to 60 percent of the road miles in the first phase, then using profits from subscribers to continue the build-out.

Crocker’s plan would not require any town bonding or borrowing. Unlimited internet access would start at a rate of $105 per month.

Westfield Gas & Electric Inc. (WGE) has proposed to design, engineer, project manage and operate a town fiber network on a “cost only” basis. It estimates the cost of a fiber build-out for Hawley to be $1.5 million. If WGE uses only Hawley’s $520,000 broadband grant, building out the entire town would take about 23 years, using internet subscriber fees to expand the build-out. With $1 million, the full town build out would take about 11 years, according to the plan submitted to the MBI Flexible Grant Program.