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‘Middle mile’ gets a boost

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 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.

(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 last article in a five-part series.)

With the state’s “middle-mile” fiber-optic network now official, efforts to bring broadband to Franklin County now moves to the promise of a second $40 million proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick.

Patrick on Thursday morning helped inaugurate the first stretch of the $71.6 million “Massachusetts 123” “middle mile” network to link under-served western towns with the high-speed Internet.

“Today is a remarkable milestone because now every corner of the commonwealth will be connected to the educational and economic opportunities everywhere else in the world,” said Patrick in the southern Berkshire County town of Otis.

A new $40 million bond issue would help extend Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s “middle mile” connection to town halls, schools and libraries directly to homes in 45 towns defined as unserved or under-served, 13 of them in Franklin County.

But who builds the “last mile” to homes and businesses in remote areas — and who foots the bill — is far from clear.

If Thursday’s ceremony was filled with promise, a Northampton meeting planned for Saturday between MBI and the 42-town WiredWest municipal cooperative could nail down some answers, at least for those member communities. Sixteen of them are in Franklin County.

Meanwhile, with the second leg of MBI’s “123” middle-mile network scheduled to be turned on later this month from Northfield and Gill westward all the way to Monroe, pressure will be building for residents, businesses and town operations to figure out how they can plug in — and whether it’s worth the price.

Will financially strapped town halls and schools, many of which already have access to high-speed connections, opt to pay for service that’s described as 10 times faster than what they now have for Internet and telephone service?

Final mile?

And how do outlying towns that have been struggling with this issue for a dozen years, work to get the “last mile” built to every house and business, now that the goal seems nearly at hand?”

“When we estimate all of these road miles, it’s almost like doing this (1,200-mile) network all over again in terms of scale,” says MBI Director Judith Dumont of the work ahead for the towns. She guesses private contractors could be called on by them to do the work over the next three to five years. A big part of what gets done, especially given economic conditions, could depend on how much public money is available to help encourage reluctant private investors.

Some could come from the Federal Communication Commission’s “Connect America Fund,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service low-cost loans or other programs.

“We’re constantly on the lookout,” said Dumont, who also points to hopes for a revised, expanded USDA Connected Communities program that could qualify Massachusetts towns, where they haven’t in the past.

Also, the FCC’s Connect America Fund, which in the past only allowed incumbent phone companies like Verizon or AT&T to apply, is being revised for a new round of funding, said Dumont and her assistant, Jason Whittet. With about $185 million remaining from a first round of projects, and another round set to begin, MBI has called on the FCC to allow the program to help smaller companies — like Crocker Communications — build “last mile” networks.

Although MBI wasn’t eligible to apply for the program, which offers companies a $775-per-household subsidy to build a fiber network, Dumont hopes new rules might allow the agency to help do the work large companies haven’t seen as worth the investment.

“That’s one really exciting thing about the MassBroadband123 network,” Whittet said. “Before, a small provider would never be able to use these funds to build out because they’d never be able to get (the link) back to Springfield. Now, with this network in place, that $775 goes much further.”

Another hope is the governor’s proposed $40 million state bond to help build the “last mile,” which Dumont says “is probably the last, biggest thing we have left to do.”

But how does that affect WiredWest’s plans to build a fiber-to-the-home network for its member towns — and its hopes MBI could offer part of the funds remaining after “MassBroadband 123 to get its own USDA loan or revenue bond?

“We’ve got to work together to find a way to finish the job,” said Monica Webb, WiredWest Executive Committee chair.

So she plans to meet Saturday with Dumont and area legislators, now that MBI is considering building that network for roughly $80 million to $100 million in under-served communities, to see how their goals intersect.

“It’s a game-changer for WiredWest, depending on how it’s executed,” said Webb. “I think WiredWest realizes the state is capable of constructing a network, as they’ve proven with the middle mile. We want to be assured that it’s done in a manner that’s universal, affordable and fiber-optic based.”

Robbie Leppzer of Wendell, one of the creators of the municipal cooperative, said, “We’re at a critical juncture ... The whole reason for forming WiredWest several years ago was that towns in Western Mass. wanted to have a seat at the table as to how decisions get made and how they get implemented. It’s in the nitty-gritty details that policies get accomplished. We are the voices of the towns. It’s a different mindset partnering with a municipal, nonprofit cooperative than with a private, for-profit corporation. We feel we’re the best advocate to ensure there will be universal coverage. If it’s left to a for-profit corporation (to design, build and operate a last-mile network) they’re going to cherry-pick, and we’ll be in same situation we’re in now, where the harder-to-reach, more remote parts of our rural towns will still be unserved.”

Webb added, “We’ve been marginalized by cherry pickers over the last 10 years in our towns, so we’re hyper-aware of how it takes some of our most profitable (potential) customers out of the business case. That’s one of our concerns we’ve expressed with MBI. I think that’s really why time is of the essence in trying to get this built.”

Leverett’s unique approach with more of a “‘just-do-it’ attitude,” also caught the attention — and applause — Franklin Regional Planning Board members last week, as Selectboard member Peter d’Errico offered to help any other town explore its example of building its own last-mile network from the tax base as an economic development tool, and Broadband Committee member Richard Nathorst said, “I really think this is the way to go. It makes all the sense in world for towns to own their infrastructure.”

Planning Board Chair Jerry Lund of Leyden responded, “It’s important to seize the moment. It’s a golden opportunity.”

Closing the gap

With MBI’s middle-mile network scheduled to be completed in July, Dumont said, the Patrick administration is turning its attention to closing the digital divide in towns where broadband is least available. That still would leave pockets of many towns — including Greenfield, Montague, Shelburne and others across Massachusetts.

“That would be a next step” that needs to be addressed statewide, she said. With cable contracts under review periodically in each community, “I think the private sector is on a path to getting it done, and maybe something can be done to assist them with that,” but the 45 towns are the next priority for the state.

“It all comes down to how much money can we cobble together with partnerships with municipalities, federal sources and the private sector,” Dumont said. “We all have to make sure the (bond) bill gets passed and make sure we work together to catalyze that other investment. That will determine how far we can go with fiber.”

Towns figuring out how to connect with MasssBroadband 123” then, could eventually bring profound changes to the region. It’s likely to be a boon to the housing market, boosting property values and allowing more people to work from home.

“There’s a lot of development that could happen that just doesn’t stay in the area,” says Richard Roth, who operates an Internet service company from his Greenfield home. “Anything that’s really heavy high tech leaves the area really quickly because of all the things the technical environment doesn’t have: the bandwidth, the connectivity.”

Greenfield real-estate agent Mark Abramson, adds, “It comes up in conversation when we’re showing any residential property.” Homes without broadband access are valued at least $5,000 less, and the devaluation is even greater in the case of higher-value properties that could otherwise attract buyers seeking a rural setting from which they can work from home.

Given the trend toward streaming movies and television programming, Abramson noted, “There’s nowhere for it to go but up, as more things take up greater and greater bandwith.”

And those hair-thin strands of glass fiber, capable of connecting it all at multi-gigabit-per second speeds, are now headed for the hills.

“People are starting to say, ‘It’s real, ‘it’s happening.’” Dumont said. “There are lots of conversations about how we get something in these communities. Some are taking it in their own hands ... I think we’ll definitely see people closing that gap.”

On the Web: www.massbroadband123.org

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

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