Wired West’s longtime goal in sight
Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell in his studio.
Robbie Leppzer of Turning Tide Productions in Wendell with his satelite disc he needs for internet access.
(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 third in a five-part series.)
ShaysNet, at the dawn of the Internet era, using an ancient 28-kilobit-per-second computer modem, was the Greenfield-based Internet service that was among those leading the charge for low-cost, high-speed Internet solutions in Franklin County a dozen years ago.
Today, the new “Shays net” — in the spirit of the grass-roots uprising in rural western Massachusetts — is a 42-town co-operative whose members have banded together to provide fiber-optic telecommunication bandwidth to every home and business in the most rural parts of western Massachusetts.
Now that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has begun literally rolling out its 1,200-mile MassBroadband 123 “middle-mile” network, the WiredWest cooperative has been seen by many as the best hope for bringing that bandwidth the “final mile” to homes and businesses in the most sparsely populated locations around the four western counties.
“We are the communities, the 42 towns, that created ... the WiredWest cooperative,” said WiredWest executive board member Glenn Cardinal of Buckland. “We will put this together for those towns and develop these networks for anyone who wants it, not just the downtowns, but out on that dirt road, toward the end of the road, where the next closest house is three-quarters of a mile away. If they want it, we’re going to run the fiber.”
There’s a new wrinkle in those plans, with the state considering building the last mile in some communities itself. But even if the state Legislature approves a second $40 million bond and MBI builds its own fiber-to-the-home network, Webb says WiredWest may be interested in becoming the Internet Service Provider that uses the state-owned lines to deliver broadband service.
Sixteen of WiredWest’s 42 towns are in Franklin County — some of which, like Ashfield, Hawley, Shutesbury and Wendell, may in their “thickly settled” areas have some access to high-speed Internet. But those solutions for the most densely populated areas are few, far between and relatively expensive.
“The bottom line is, we need a solution that serves everyone,” says Monica Webb, WiredWest’s executive board chairwoman. “And the most financially responsible way to do that is to have a co-op like this because you get economies of sale by serving the majority of the market. If you have a Band-Aid patchwork of solutions of other providers — a wireless tower here, DSL there — you never reach everybody. And people are stuck with low-bandwidth solutions that aren’t going to drive that economic development engine.”
MBI and WiredWest plan a meeting later this week to work out whether their objectives — both characterized as providing universal, inexpensive fiber to the home in under-served areas — are in fact the same, and how they can work together.
Webb says WiredWest estimates that $50 million annually leaves the WiredWest member towns in payment for telephone, Internet and television services. “Even if we could capture a portion of that and keep the fees within the region, that’s an economic-development message all its own.”
Economic leg up
WiredWest members, largely outside the Interstate 91 corridor where Comcast cable, and Verizon DSL solutions have been available, are looking not just for faster ways for townspeople to surf the Web or watch Netflix, but for an economic leg up.
A WiredWest market survey a year ago showed that one-quarter of residents in WiredWest towns operate home businesses or telecommute, but are largely dissatisfied with the speeds and pricing that’s available to them, Webb said. And another 30 percent said they would telecommute or operate a home-based business if affordable broadband were available.
Shutesbury Broadband Committee founding member Aron Goldman says that after working on a broadband solution in his town for more than a decade, “I do believe WiredWest is our best option. It’s a great plan, and really the only possibility for solving our problem.”
With MBI poised to launch its $71.5 million middle-mile network, WiredWest has begun seeking funding to build a 1,952-mile fiber-to-the-home network that Webb says would take an estimated 12 to 18 months to build.
“The towns in WiredWest have been marginalized for the past 10 years by the private sector,” Webb said, referring to Verizon and Comcast,” and they’ve cherry-picked the most profitable customers in the center of the towns. Now that MBI is doing the middle mile, we can leverage that.”
She says she’s concerned about the wholesale pricing structure that Axia has in place now and that the last-mile be built in such a way that service is affordable to residents in every corner of rural western Mass. towns.
MBI probably has access to lower borrowing costs to get the last stretch of fiber to homes built, and it has a good record of building its wider middle-mile network. “But we do want to ensure the pricing is affordable,” she said.
Robbie Leppzer, who has chaired the Wendell Broadband Committee since 1996, began reaching out to other towns in 2009 for a grass-roots solution based on a century-old, state municipal electrification statute after years of waiting unsuccessfully for private industry and then for regional and state efforts to build high-speed networks here.
After working closely as part of a Leverett-Shutsbury-Wendell effort, “We realized there was not much we as three towns could do. We said, ‘We’ve got to get all the unserved towns in western Mass. together,” said Leppzer, who now, as Wendell’s delegate, sees the municipal co-op as “the only organization we have that will actually bring universal coverage.”
Now that MBI has announced it wants to help towns with their “last-mile solutions,” Leppzer says, “The whole reason for forming WiredWest several years ago was that towns in Western Mass wanted to have seat at table as to how decisions get made and how they get implemented. It’s in the nitty-gritty details that policies get accomplished. We feel as WiredWest that we have a lot to offer. We are the voices of the 42 towns.”
Since WiredWest’s creation, with towns voting to apply the state’s municipal lighting laws to the Internet, the co-operative has done a preliminary market survey showing about 60 percent support for its service. It’s gone through an elaborate, volunteer-led process of mapping every utility pole and structure in every town and developed an elaborate business plan for building its fiber network. Working with a $50,000 grant from MBI and hundreds of hours of volunteer time, it’s done extensive mapping and an engineering study for how a “last-mile” network would be built. WiredWest recently completed a survey of the 28,000 member households in its towns as an indication of how many would seriously consider subscribing to the service.
The cost of a 41-town solution, which would plug into MBI’s points of interconnection in Charlemont, Greenfield, Orange and other locations, could be $70 million to $130 million, according to Webb. Because of economies of scale, that’s likely a much more cost-efficient solution than if each of the town tried to build its own fiber-to-the home network, Webb said, pointing to the $2.6 million project now being undertaken to do that in Leverett going it alone.
Because of the nearly 2,000 miles of back roads involved, the last-mile fiber project in the WiredWest towns is an even more massive undertaking than MBI’s 1,200-mile project, says Webb.
Paying for the build-out
But how that gets funded is still uncertain.
One possibility is to apply for a federal Rural Utility Service loan or to sell a municipal bond, both of which would likely require a match of about 10 percent, says Webb.
“It’s going to be a complicated application process,” she says, “but they’ll loan up to $100 million, and that works very well for our finances. They’re willing to work with us, and we have to raise a 10 percent match, either privately or from state, potentially from MBI, or possibly other state sources.”
MBI Executive Director Judith Dumont says she expects MBI will have $10 to $15 million remaining from a $40 million state bond after construction of its middle-mile network.
“What WiredWest has taken on is fantastic,” Dumont says, “and if they can make that business case, they should. We’re looking to help with that. But (other) towns are also looking, and we’re looking to see what the biggest bang for the buck is. Our mission is to close the digital divide, but it was never meant that the state would write the whole check.”
Back in Wendell, WiredWest delegate Leppzer stresses, “We definitely need support from the state just to get the ball rolling. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money. We’ll look for federal loan money and we’ll be going to the private bond market, but we need some guarantee. I definitely feel this is where MBI and the government should be putting its support, because our little towns can’t afford it.”
“WiredWest is really a beautiful expression of the creativity and the ingenuity of the people here in western Mass.,” he says. “We believe in creating things and being innovative to serve the community. We’re all volunteers, and having a municipally owned and controlled network is the best expression of how we in western Mass. want to be able to live our lives with a system that gives back to the community.”
On the Web: www.wired-west.net
You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269
Next up: Forging ahead