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After long wait, broadband begins to arrive in under-served parts of Franklin County

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Carlos Rodriguez and Victoriano Estrada connect two orange plastic conduits that will carry fiber optic cable along Industrial Blvd in the Airport Industrial Park in Montague.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Carlos Rodriguez and Victoriano Estrada connect two orange plastic conduits that will carry fiber optic cable along Industrial Blvd in the Airport Industrial Park in Montague.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Orange conduit for fiber optic cables is buried under Industrial Blvd in Montague on Monday.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Orange conduit for fiber optic cables is buried under Industrial Blvd in Montague on Monday.

  • Seth Kern, with Lake States Construction, a sub-contractor of Lake Connections, readied telephone poles in Two Harbors, Minnesota, to string stainless steel strand cables from which fiber optic cable will be lashed to, July 31, 2012. By the time the communications project is done in 2014 around 2000 miles of fiber optic cable will be strung, connecting customers with broadband internet, video and telephone service. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

    Seth Kern, with Lake States Construction, a sub-contractor of Lake Connections, readied telephone poles in Two Harbors, Minnesota, to string stainless steel strand cables from which fiber optic cable will be lashed to, July 31, 2012. By the time the communications project is done in 2014 around 2000 miles of fiber optic cable will be strung, connecting customers with broadband internet, video and telephone service. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Carlos Rodriguez and Victoriano Estrada connect two orange plastic conduits that will carry fiber optic cable along Industrial Blvd in the Airport Industrial Park in Montague.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Orange conduit for fiber optic cables is buried under Industrial Blvd in Montague on Monday.
  • Seth Kern, with Lake States Construction, a sub-contractor of Lake Connections, readied telephone poles in Two Harbors, Minnesota, to string stainless steel strand cables from which fiber optic cable will be lashed to, July 31, 2012. By the time the communications project is done in 2014 around 2000 miles of fiber optic cable will be strung, connecting customers with broadband internet, video and telephone service. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Like the rural electrification and development of a telephone system in the last century, building a multi-million-dollar telecommunications system across the region is seen as key to economic development and bridging the “digital divide” that becomes ever more important to how we live and do business. This is the first in a five-part series.)

When the Massachusetts Broadband Institute began lighting up the first miles of its MassBroadband 123 network last month, you might have heard cheering in some parts of the southern Berkshires, as well as Boston.

The 1,200-mile fiber-optic line, which will eventually bring high-speed Internet to 123 unserved and under-served parts of western and central Massachusetts, isn’t the final solution for what’s been a relatively low-tech backwater trying for years to play catch-up across the digital divide.

But it’s a start — an expensive start that’s been long in coming, as many critics will tell you.

It will take at least another month or so before Franklin County starts to see the first fruits of the state’s $71.6 million “middle-mile” effort, linking service from the Internet hubs in Springfield and Boston with a “last-mile” connecting to an estimated 333,500 homes and 44,000 businesses across about one-third of the state’s area.

The fiber-optic network, being built by the state economic development agency with a combination of federal stimulus funds and state bond money, is intended to attract service providers to build the last leg of a high-speed network in towns and cities where at least half the population counts its Internet connections in kilobits, rather than megabits, per second.

The project, which was supposed to be completed by July 1, is running a month or so late, due largely to weather problems including Hurricane Sandy, for which needed utility crews were dispatched to New York and New Jersey for four to six weeks, according to MBI Executive Director Judith Dumont.

MBI’s project got a big boost when the state was awarded $45.4 million in stimulus funds for the project, which also uses $26.2 million of a $40 million state bond.

MBI also helped with a $2 million federal grant to map how the state should invest in development of broadband technology.

“Originally, there was a plan for 12,000 households that were unserved,” Dumont says, “and the plan was to build 48 miles of fiber, like fingers coming from Springfield, and do a wireless overlay. The definition of broadband then was 256 kilobits per second. But by two metrics, what we’ve built is 25 times what was originally anticipated, with nearly 1,200 miles of fiber instead of 48, and serving 123 communities.” The network that’s being built will provide for speeds of at least 5 megabits per second and uses a fiber-optic cable she describes as “future-proof,” because advancements ahead will come in electronics rather than in the fiberglass pipe itself.

With cable now stretched across about 65 percent of the pathway, planners envision project completion this month from Northfield and Gill westward to Leyden, Colrain and Shelburne Falls, including most of West County. In May, the network would become available in Conway, Buckland and Ashfield, with Greenfield, Montague and towns farther east added in June.

Headed for public facilities

But don’t expect that new cable – even if it runs directly past your house — to be the high-speed link you’ve dreamed of with each dragged-out download.

Instead, the fiber-optic cable is headed to 1,200 Community Anchor Institutions around the region — libraries, town halls, police and fire stations and other public buildings. And even there, it will be up to owners of those buildings to decide if they want to contract with an Internet service provider to connect them.

Along the route are also network interconnection points — including ones in Charlemont, Greenfield and Orange — where lines feed back toward Springfield and Boston.

At Greenfield Community College, which already has 12 strands of fiber-optic cable coming into its main campus, the college expects to be able to take advantage of more bandwidth at tremendous savings.

“For the same price, we should be able to get two to three times the bandwidth from this network coming into the building,” said GCC Chief Information Officer Michael Assaf, who hopes to begin negotiating with one of 30 service providers MBI has contacted to resell the wholesale bandwidth that network operator Axia NG Network will have to offer.

Similarly, Dumont said she hopes private providers will step forward to offer to build the “last mile” in towns where publicly built fiber-optic hubs are now being made available.

Especially with another $40 million “last-mile” bond recently being proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick, the state’s new 1,200-mile network should entice private servers to build the “last mile” in areas where they haven’t been willing to make the investment.

“If nothing else was done, a private provider isn’t going to come in and invest the capital,” Dumont said. “We’re now on the same playing field because of this.”

Using the new $40,000 bond, if it’s approved by the Legislature, MBI may even contract out a 45-town, fiber-to-the-home network itself.

Under the 10-year contract that MBI has with Canadian-based Axia NG Networks to operate its MassBroadband 123 network, the company pays the state using part of its revenue from selling wholesale service to users. Those users — the ISPs — can charge whatever they want to provide Internet access to residential, commercial and other customers, but they have to compete with one another.

Dumont has been meeting with town officials around the region, trying to get them to think about how they can take the next step and looking at whether to use the community anchor institutions and to contact service providers about building the final leg to homes and businesses.

“It’s getting them to see they have a real say in this matter,” Dumont says. “My message to the communities is, ‘You need to be thinking about this, about what are the priorities for your community. And what are resources you can bring to bear?’”

It’s not as though communities haven’t given the questions thought — especially those areas where the only options for Internet service have been dial-up or satellite connections.

“We salivate over people just a couple of hundred feet away who are enjoying speeds everyone else enjoys,” says Aron Goldman of Shutesbury, who began trying to rally his town to push for broadband more than 10 years ago. Goldman, who lives close to the Amherst town line, where cable service is available, said, “We’re 10 minutes from the flagship of the University of Massachusetts system, but we’re stuck with this ancient technology.”

A public policy analyst, Goldman is openly critical of MBI being a “top-down, eastern-Mass. bureaucracy” that he says didn’t reach out for expertise in the small towns that had developed over years of trying to overcome problems of topography, low population density and refusal of Verizon to help extend high-speed technologies.

“The middle mile’s better than nothing,” he says, suggesting that maybe building the “last mile” for providers to plug into might have been a better approach. As it is, he says, “We’re not even close to solving this problem.”

Most other observers around the county — including volunteers in a host of towns who have been looking into possible high-speed solutions — disagree, although there are some rumblings about the cost for small communities to hook up to Community Anchor Institutions.

Dumont, meanwhile, admits, “It’s definitely still a work in progress … We’re seeing lots of conversations about how we get something in these communities. I think we’ll definitely see people closing that gap. In some cases, it will be the end game, in some it’s a stepping stone.”

NEXT: A long, strange trip to high-speed

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