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Leverett bushwhacks its own route

Recorder/Paul Franz
Peter d’Errico and Robert Brooks of Leverett look over plans for broadband at the Leverett Town Hall.

Recorder/Paul Franz Peter d’Errico and Robert Brooks of Leverett look over plans for broadband at the Leverett Town Hall.

(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 fourth in a five-part series.)

LEVERETT — If there’s a “poster child” for broadband development in rural western Massachusetts, it’s Leverett, which last month signed a $2.7 million contract to build a “last-mile” fiber-optic network along its 40 miles of roads, for universal telecommunication service that’s expected to be up and running sometime next year.

“It’s a real milestone,” Selectboard member Peter d’Errico says. “It’s taken us almost two years in the making. “As far as we’re aware, we’re still out front in getting this done first.”

In fact, while the town won a critical $40,000 grant from Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that paid for a detailed design study by G4S — the same company that won the $2.7 million construction contract — the journey has taken much longer. It’s also meant taxpayers agreeing to shoulder the burden of paying to have their network built, in part to assure that their home values keep up with the ever-growing demand for affordable high-speed telecommunication.

Robert Brooks, who chairs the town Broadband Committee, has been working on trying to bring high-speed telecommunications to the town for 10 years. Working with Shutesbury, Leverett began by approaching Verizon and Comcast to extend service, with little satisfaction.

“Out of our own internal sense of frustration of trying to deal with Verizon,” recalled d’’Errico, “it was pretty clear we were going to have to do it on our own. (Brooks) was the point person for exploring other avenues, saying, ‘We can work this out. If Leverett wants to do it, Leverett is going to have to do it.”

The town’s frustrations over telecommunication weren’t limited to simply bringing high-speed Internet service to its residents. Residents’ reports of interruptions in service, static and other noises that interrupted phone conversations and problems using the town’s reverse-911 calling system led to complaints against the telephone company to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

“Any time we had any moisture or rain, whole sections of town would have no telephone service,” d’Errico said.

Similar complaints, brought by a variety of towns, including Rowe and Shutesbury, eventually led to a settlement that required Verizon to repair its copper phone wires, and those problems have largely abated, according to d’Errico. He emphasized that telephone service and Internet service are treated differently, however: DTC oversees land-line telephone, but not cellphone or broadband service.

Based on an estimate of less than a 2 percent hike in Leverett’s average property tax bill over the next 20 years to pay back a bond for construction — about $300 a year, d’Errico estimated, most residents will see a net savings of about $500 a year, based on a survey of what they’re paying now for phone and Internet using the system. The monthly service fee, including unlimited long-distance telephone as well as Internet, is estimated to be a little over $60 a month, d’Errico said. There is no provision for television service, which he said is largely moving to Internet anyway.

An operator for the service, to be delivered at cost, has yet to be selected.

“Almost everybody in Leverett will save money at the end of the year,” d’Errico said. “They’ll spend that extra money on their tax bill, but if they’re already subscribing to the Internet and they have a telephone — both of which the network will provide — they will actually be saving money.”

The project sounds attractive enough to residents in the contiguous Chestnut Hill section of Montague that they’re looking into setting up a special betterment district to build a fiber connection to the Leverett system.

“We have no other options we feel are good options for broadband service other than satellite, which we feel is expensive and not very high performing,” said Jason Burbank, who is involved in the effort to link 60 to 65 Montague households. “The Leverett model seems to be far and away the best option for cost and performance.”

A November 2011 Broadband Committee survey found that 23 percent of Leverett residents must resort to dial-up for Internet service, and 37 percent rely on a satellite hookup. Another 14 percent depend on a fixed wireless signal, while 20 percent have access to a digital subscriber line (DSL). Each of those, said Brooks, provide for far slower and less reliable service than would fiber-optic cable.

Although a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate by the Leverett-Shutesbury committee several years ago guessed it would cost about $3 million to wire each town with fiber, it was MBI’s $40,000 grant that paid for the design and analysis that led to the $3.6 estimate brought to and approved by town meeting a year ago. The actual bid is about $1 million less.

“Without that money from MBI, we wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple,” said Brooks, adding that the detailed design for Leverett’s network will be applicable to many other towns.

“If Town X wants to do what we did, they don’t need go through another $40,000 or $50,000. They can use our study as a template and say with a high degree of confidence that we believe it’s going to cost between X and Y.”

But more than the MBI grant, Leverett has had another element in its favor trailblazing a solution.

“You need more than just well-meaning people,” said Brooks, who as a software engineer for Hewlett Packard, is one of several Broadband Committee volunteers who brings a high-level background to solving a complicated, fast-changing set of issues.

You need a fair amount of technical expertise,” he said. “You couldn’t have a bunch of people who weren’t familiar with the technology, even construction. There’s an indispensable need for people” like committee member Richard Nathorst, University of Massachusetts capital projects manager “with real-world expertise like that to make a project like this work.”

Nathorst told the Franklin Regional Planning Board last week, “This is going to generate one of the lowest cost broadband Internet services and telephone systems,”

The “synchronous” network, which will have the same gigabit-per-second, upload and download speeds for everyone, to allow for uses like tele-medicine and work on cloud-based systems, “is going to be owned by the taxpayers, and they’re only going to pay the operating and maintenance costs,” Nathorst added. With the town owning the infrastructure and allowing its residents to reap the benefits of lower cost while also throttling up Leverett’s economic development engine, he said, “This is a whole different way of approaching bringing broadband to our town, and we think it’s viable for other towns. It’s an investment, just like building a road ... We’re interested in providing the fastest service we possibly can at the lowest cost we can deliver it at.”

MBI Executive Director Judith Dumont said, “Leverett is the biggest success story. The broadband committee there did an amazing job providing information to help them understand the costs and the benefits for the town. It’s a very similar project to what we’ve just gone through, on a much smaller scale.”

But Leverett’s success, she added, is predicated on having the “middle mile” that MBI is building.

“Without this network, they would not have even been able to contemplate doing this,” she said. “Fiber to the home was so expensive, there was no possible way it could get done. If nothing else was done, a private provider wasn’t going to come in and invest the capital.”

Now that MBI has leveled the playing field” for rural towns in the regions, the next step will be helping them figure how, individually or collectively, they can follow Leverett’s lead and build the last mile.

On the Web: http://leverett.ma.us/content/broadband-committee

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

NEXT: The last mile

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