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Bringing county a high-speed network has been slow-going

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Linda Dunlavy, executive director of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, in the County Commissioners records room in the courthouse in Greenfield.<br/><br/>

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Linda Dunlavy, executive director of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, in the County Commissioners records room in the courthouse in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Rich Roth, who was involved early on with the effort to bring connections to rural communities, operates a Web-support firm out of his home in Greenfield.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Linda Dunlavy, executive director of Franklin Regional Council of Governments, in the County Commissioners records room in the courthouse in Greenfield.<br/><br/>

(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 more important to how we live and do business. This is the second in a five-part series.)

“Like a new railroad line on the frontier or a new highway through a backwoods area, a length of fiber-optic cable being laid through Franklin County this year is being hailed as a critical economic investment tool for the region” a front-page Recorder story announced on March 19, 1998.

Many in the business community cheered the promise of a cable being installed along a high-tension power line right-of-way back then through Northfield, Montague, Sunderland and Leverett on its way from Manchester, N.H., to Springfield.

Yet the path from Franklin County’s dirt-road connections to information superhighway has been anything but straightforward, with town, regional and state officials trying keep up with economic dips and sinkholes as well as constant technological breakthroughs.

And now that Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s $71.6 million MassBroadband 123 is becoming a reality, with an official inauguration planned for Thursday, some of those players — including an impressive array of volunteers — say they can’t believe delivering affordable broadband to every home and business around the region is close at hand.

Many say they also can’t believe bringing high-speed to the hilltowns has been so slow-going.

It was 14 years ago this month that the Franklin Regional COG surveyed 1,300 businesses around the county, responding to complaints of poor telephone connections and frustrations in getting answers from phone company officials.

Operators of what were then fledgling Internet Service Provider (ISP) firms complained that the phone company — known in 1999 as Bell Atlantic — had refused to invest in sparsely populated areas like western Massachusetts.

“Trying to get fiber optic out of Bell Atlantic is like trying to look for hen’s teeth,’’ said David Leonard, who operated a microwave-based Greenfield ISP called ShaysNet. “It’s a crazy situation.”

As one outgrowth of the survey, a consortium of businesses, schools, towns, colleges and hospitals came together in 1999 to form Franklin Connect to forge solutions. The idea was to aggregate enough major customers for someone to build a high-speed pipe to this region from the existing Springfield nexus.

Even though some fiber-optic lines were already in place, there was no way to access them, said Linda Dunlavy, who helped create Franklin Connect as a collaborative effort of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

For anyone who absolutely needed to have a T-1 line, like Greenfield Community College, the costs were astronomical. At the time, Greenfield Community College was spending between $1,200 and $1,500 a month for a dedicated T-1 line from the University of Massachusetts, which in turn connected to a line along the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Now, Dunlavy reflects, “When we started, we knew it was a hard problem, but we didn’t know how difficult it was going to be, and we had no idea it was going to take as long as it did.”

Working without any funding in the first five or six years of Franklin Connect, she says, “It took that long, even for state and federal governments to recognize this was a huge problem. We had to prove to eastern Mass., and even parts of western Mass. that had broadband, why we deserved it,” fighting back at reactions that broadband would result in uncontrolled growth for the rural region and that it would allow rural areas to compete with struggling cities that were trying to rebuild their economies.

A growing need

If the slow situation has improved somewhat since then, with better service available from satellite servers, increased availability of digital subscriber lines (DSL) from Verizon and fixed-wireless services in Warwick and a few other towns, the need has also been pumped up as the Internet plays a greater role in people’s everyday lives.

“What people are finding is that you need solid connectivity to do just about anything, whether it’s taking courses online or being able to pay bills online,” says Richard Roth, who operates a Web-support firm from his Greenfield home. “There are all these things that are changing the character of how society functions. As more and more of society expects (high-speed capability), the areas that don’t have it are more and more behind the curve.”

Slow connections are also increasingly slowing real estate sales, says Realtor Mark Abramson of Greenfield, because some buyers from better-served areas who are looking for a semi-rural lifestyle in Franklin County also have to contend with places most likely to lack high-speed connections.

“Usually, that only gives you satellite as an option, which is spotty at best,” Abramson said. “Most of those people are sophisticated enough to say they only want DSL or cable. Some are even saying they won’t do DSL. We have people waiting for us to find those properties. It’s been a big issue more the last two or three years, mainly because people need greater bandwidth to do their Internet and their streaming video, and people are telecommuting with large work files to download and upload.”

The long struggle

It’s not as though the region has been ignoring the growing need, but there have been frustrations.

After seeking bids for a telecommunications solution for the region, Franklin Connect — which had grown to become Franklin-Hampshire Connect — announced in 2001 that it was poised to sign a contract with Global Crossing and subsidiary Equal Access Networks to build a low-cost, wireless network. The companies, which jointly had submitted one of five proposals, was already building similar networks in Berkshire County and southern New Hampshire.

And then, in early 2002, Global Crossing filed for bankruptcy.

The Connect consortium, which added Hampden County in 2003, won with its Berkshire counterpart a state grant in 2006 to develop a model solution to deploy broadband in unserved towns around the region. Much of that work led in 2008 to create a $40 million state fund to attract private investment in extending high-speed service to every corner of the state. Along with that came MBI, which has focused on building its “middle-mile” fiber trunk toward that end.

Since MBI has geared up, Western Mass. Connect — created in 2009 across the four counties — has been playing largely a supporting role, says Dunlavy, a member of the combined Connect steering committee as well as the MBI Board of Directors.

“We’ve been doing whatever we could to help MBI get the middle mile built,” says Dunlavy.

Connect critique

That “advocacy” role has come under some criticism from some, like Robert Brooks of Leverett, who sees the Connect effort as spinning its wheels for years.

“That entire, nonsensical Pioneer Valley Connect thing from several years ago was a waste of time,” said Brooks. “That was essentially what created (the western Massachusetts cooperative) Wired West. (Member towns) were so frustrated with Berkshire Connect, and we were frustrated with Pioneer Valley Connect because they were kind of milling around wasting a lot of time and money on relatively stupid technologies like wireless, which we knew wouldn’t work. We had a lot of data to prove it wouldn’t work.”

But Greenfield Web developer Roth, who was involved with Franklin Connect from the beginning, defended the effort to bring fiber connections to rural communities.

“It takes momentum to get Boston’s attention and to get the federal government’s attention,” Roth says, as well as to figure out costs, legal ramifications and technical possibilities of what needs to be done.

Dunlavy, who acknowledges the years it took for the groups to get up to speed in understanding which solutions might work and how to pay for them, points to the value of these advocacy, information-gathering and dissemination roles.

Helping towns connect

Now with the 123 network about ready about to start up, she said, the COG sees itself helping towns figure out how to use it. That mission grew out of Dunlavy’s own head-scratching 1½ years ago, as the COG prepared to move into new Greenfield offices that would also be one of 1,200 “community anchor institutions” served by the new MBI network. Suddenly, there were new possibilities for available data and telephone services, and she realized towns would soon be confronting the same confusing situation.

The COG, under contract to Western Mass. Connect, queried all towns and school districts in the 123-town area asking how much they spent for Internet and phone connections, and how much service they needed, with the intent of seeking a cooperative purchase sometime in the future. More than half have responded.

It also sent out a formal request to service providers to see what they could offer with the new network, and at what cost. The results, from 10 providers including Crocker Communications and Wired West, have been posted online on the Westernmaconnect.org website to help towns that are considering hooking up. An updated version with more providers is expected to be posted soon, Dunlavy says.

Meanwhile, the COG has also created a guide for towns on innovative ways they can use the newly available broadband.

“We’re potentially talking about 10 times the bandwidth speed for the price were paying now,” Dunlavy says. “We could either save a lot of money or we could rethink how we do things.

“This should help Community Anchor Institutions in making a decision about service, but it should also be useful to residents and businesses to know which provider I should be negotiating with, that I think will bring service to me. As a CAI or a resident, I don’t want to negotiate with 30 providers to get the best price, I want to use results of this to hone down the decision to three providers, then say, ‘What can you give me at what price?’”

As far as the COG is concerned, Dunlavy says, “This really should transform how our municipal governments work and perform their functions, and how they communicate. I think that’s the role of the COG. We need to help towns figure it out.”

And that role has changed dramatically from 14 years ago, when the COG began trying to help towns connect.

“When we first started this,” she remembers, “we couldn’t imagine building a 1,200-mile, fiber-optic, middle-mile network. The middle mile isn’t the solution. Yet it’s an asset ... that will absolutely, permanently, solve the problem in western Mass. I had no idea it was going to be this hard. And what we’ve already achieved, though it’s not done, is more than I could have possibly ever imagined.”

NEXT: Banding together

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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