HAWLEY — Charged with the task of building out the state’s “last mile” broadband, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute is now looking at wireless options as a less-expensive alternative to the fiber-optic network proposed for all towns without broadband access a few years ago.
“What we’ve been told by (MBI Technical Director) Dave Charbonneau is that they’re soliciting proposals now, to do an evaluation for all 44 towns with wireless,” said Kirby “Lark” Thwing Jr., a member of the town’s Communications Committee and Hawley’s WiredWest delegate. “We do know that Interisle Consulting Group (which has been working with Hawley) was one of the many consulting firms they’ve solicited.”
When asked for confirmation, MBI spokeswoman Maeghan Silverberg Welford said that, in partnership with Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, “MBI is exploring wireless technology options in an effort to provide more affordable broadband options for many unserved towns.”
The statement from MBI says it is conducting a broadband wireless access study to analyze and assess available wireless technologies. It would also examine the feasibility of available wireless technologies over the diverse topography of the unserved, rural hilltowns.
“Our goal is to provide as much information as possible to unserved towns in order that each community may make the best decisions possible for its residents,” the statement continues. “While … not every town will ultimately pursue a wireless option, we are aware many towns are interested in this analysis or in exploring wireless projects. We want to ensure state investment supports affordable and sustainable projects, which may mean alternative or wireless solutions make most sense for certain communities.”
The cost of a regional fiber-optic network throughout the 44 unserved towns was expected to cost about $110 million. Thwing said the wireless networks could cost between one-fourth to one-third of what a fiber-optic network would cost towns.
Last year, Hawley annual town meeting voters decided they could not afford to spend $1 million on the town’s share of a regional fiber-optic network and, since then, Hawley has been working with other towns in what they call the Hybrid-Wireless Working Group — or HWWG — to explore wireless broadband as an affordable alternative to fiber. Participating towns have included Royalston, which has already developed a prototype wireless system, Middlefield, which is working on a wireless proposal, Hawley and Savoy. Charlemont and Colrain have also attended some of the recent meetings because of cost concerns about fiber, Thwing said.
MBI Technical Director David Charbonneau surprised some participants at the April 7 meeting in Hawley this month, by saying he and his staff are seeking requests for proposals from outside consulting firms, to get a full range of wireless alternatives for a “tabletop analysis” of the wireless possibilities in the three-dozen western Massachusetts towns currently without broadband access.
“MBI hopes to hire one or more engineering firms to do the broadband wireless access study in June, and then the study itself is projected to take 12 weeks,” Hawley Communications Committee Chairman Rick Kean wrote on the town’s website. “So we can expect to see results in September or October.”
Among the options under consideration are: LTE-4G cell carriers such as AT&T and Verizon; fixed wireless technology; TV whitespace, using lower-frequency transmitters and antennas for the most challenging terrain; and Wi-Fi mesh, with a large number of signals in confined spaces, such as in downtown Greenfield.
“Initial studies performed for some of those (HWWG) towns by industry consultants indicate that they should be able to achieve acceptable levels of performance using wireless at approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of the cost of fiber-optic cable,” Kean wrote on the town website. “Some of those studies, including the one performed for (Hawley) by Fred Goldstein of Interisle Consulting Group, were funded with MBI Planning Grants.”
“My understanding, reading between the lines, is this is a dictate from the Governor,” said Thwing.
When asked what WiredWest thinks of this new proposal, Thwing said: “A lot of WiredWest people are very unhappy.”
“We’re back to Square One,” said Glenn Cardinal, Buckland’s WiredWest delegate and a former member of WiredWest’s executive committee. “With the amount of money they’re going to spend on a consultant, it’s just a waste of money.”
“They initially wanted to build a future-proof fiber-optic network, and WiredWest put together a cooperative of towns, came up with a business plan and were ready to rock-and-roll. Now they pull everything back and start at square one. Wireless is really a band-aid,” Cardinal continued. “In a very short time, wireless is not going to be fast enough.”
He said, in steep hilly terrain, wireless broadband will require a “bunch of towers” and repeaters. “You’ve got trees, wind and mountains — and you have people in town who don’t want too many towers. If your repeater goes down, all the ones after that stop functioning. It could work; it will probably not deliver what the FCC defines as broadband,” said Cardinal. “My take is: Shame on them. More time goes by. More money gets spent and 44 towns are still without access.”
He also was concerned that, if wireless doesn’t prove to be fast or efficient enough, “you can’t go back to the well,” to start over with fiber optic. “If we were out where terrain is flat, then it might be a good alternative,” Cardinal said.
Cardinal said WiredWest is to hold an executive committee meeting tonight, April 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the Hampshire Council of Governments office in Northampton.
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