Ashfield to vote on wireless Internet

The Ashfield Town Hall turns 200 this year and the town is holding a celebration on Saturday.
(Recorder/Paul Franz)

The Ashfield Town Hall turns 200 this year and the town is holding a celebration on Saturday. (Recorder/Paul Franz) Purchase photo reprints »

ASHFIELD — Despite a plea for the Selectboard to act immediately on an offer to provide wireless Internet for the town center, town voters instead will decide to accept or oppose Hilltown Network’s Wi-Fi service plan, using the town’s new “middle-mile” fiber-optic broadband and the Town Hall steeple for antennas.

That special town meeting will be held on Sept. 22 in the Town Hall.

Hoping that the Selectboard would vote on the wireless Internet plan Monday night, the Technology Committee urged selectmen to bring negotiations with Hilltown Networks for use of the Town Hall steeple to a “timely conclusion.” They pointed out that negotiations had started almost a year ago, and that three town committees — including the Technology Committee — have all supported the proposal. Along the way, a mock-up of the antennas has been mounted on the steeple, a public hearing has taken place, and no viable alternative to the steeple has been found.

Committee member Andy Smith said that Christopher Gray, owner of Hilltown Networks, would like to get started while there is full foliage, to better determine which homes will have consistent Wi-Fi coverage year-round.

Gray’s plan is to use mounted flat panel antennas on the Town Hall steeple using the town’s fiber optic connection. The first phase would be to make service available to subscribers living near the town center. A second phase would be to set up repeaters to transmit the signal to other areas of town. In exchange for the use of town property, Gray would provide free Internet service to Town Hall, which would save the town about $1,200 per year.

Since July, Gray has become the Town Hall’s Internet service provider, using the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s fiber-optic connection, and replacing Verizon’s DSL service. The Town Hall now has a designated line for town officials and as separate Wi-Fi line for the public.

All three Selectboard members say they support Gray’s plan, but fear that settling for limited fixed wireless service in some parts of town will lower support for the “last-mile” fiber optic network the board wants for the entire town.

“I think this issue is much bigger than Chris Gray’s,” said Selectboard member Ron Coler. “My concern is, if a third of (residents) are provided wireless broadband, are they going to support the other two-thirds of the town in getting fiber optic broadband?”

“Broadband is at least three to five years away, and could go longer,” said board Chairman Thomas Carter. He suggested signing a five-year contract with Hilltown Network “while waiting for broadband.” Although Monday night’s audience seemed to fully support the Wi-Fi plan, Carter noted that many who opposed it spoke at the public hearing in March. Carter felt that a town-wide vote would be the best way to gauge how strong the support it.

“At some point, this town has to be FOR something,” he said.

Alluding to concerns that the historic steeple might be damaged by the antennas, Carter added, “I think the steeple holds a lot more snow than what these antennas are going to weigh. Even the siren weighs a lot more than the antennas.”

Technology Committee member Brian Clark said he didn’t think that Wi-Fi would keep people from wanting fiber-optic broadband when it becomes possible.

“If you kick the can down the road, you run the risk of losing (Chris Gray’s) proposal,” said Technology Committee member Juliet Jacobson. “If Chris has to wait another year, the proposal might not be available next year,” she said.

“We have houses in town that are not going to be saleable to young people — because the connections aren’t here,” said Wayne Wickland.

The warrant article will ask residents to approve Hilltown Network’s use of the Town Hall steeple and the town’s fiber-optic connection, and to authorize the Selectboard to negotiate and finalize the contract.

When reached after Monday night’s meeting, Gray said, if the town votes Sept. 22 in favor of the proposal, he could start offering Wi-Fi service to some residents within two to four weeks.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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