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1 more step to high-speed access

The 1,200-mile journey to bring high-speed Internet connections to every corner of western Massachusetts will begin drawing to a close in about one month, and Franklin County will see the fruits of the state’s $71.6 million “MassBroadband 123” initiative as early as April.

The fiber-optic network, being built with a combination of federal stimulus funds and state bond money, is intended as the “carrot” to service providers to build the last leg of a high-speed network to individual homes and businesses, in each of the state’s 123 communities where that service is unavailable to at least half the population.

Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which began building the network less than two years ago, this week announced a completion schedule for five legs of the project, beginning in March with a stretch from Springfield westward across the southern tier of Hampden and Berkshire counties.

With cable now stretched out across 43 percent of the pathway, planners are projecting project completion in April from Northfield and Gill westward to Leyden, Colrain, Shelburne, and Shelburne Falls, to include most of West County.

The schedule calls for the network in Conway, rural Buckland, and Ashfield to be “turned on” in May, and for Greenfield, Montague and towns to the east to be added in June.

A map of the network is available on MBI’s Website.

When completed at the end of July, the network will provide fiber-optic connectivity directly to 1,200 key facilities in more than 120 western and central Massachusetts communities. These “community anchor institutions” include schools, libraries, municipal buildings and public safety and health care facilities, which may be used in each community to build out a “last mile” high-speed network to every home and business.

MBI Director Judith Dumont said that although the schedule calls for service to begin for much of the designated towns at the outset of each month, it will take two to six weeks for the entire branch of the network to be completely operational at all of the community anchor institutions. And while some residents and businesses in some far-flung locations with only slow dial-up or satellite connections available are eager to be served, it’s now up to towns or commercial service providers to take advantage of the new publicly built network to connect to individual customers.

“Two and a half years ago, we set upon our mission to deploy the regional fiber network western and central Massachusetts so greatly needed,” said Dumont. “We are now just months away from deploying a full middle-mile fiber backbone.”

Already completed, with federal funding, is a fiber-optic “backbone” along the Interstate 91 corridor that brings high-speed connectivity to Franklin County from Springfield, along with another trunk line that connects the region from Boston and Ayer.

Work on the state’s “middle mile” broadband infrastructure has moved largely on schedule, Dumont said, slowed only by severe weather events — especially Hurricane Sandy, which delayed by four to six weeks work being done with area utility crews who were dispatched to New York and New Jersey. The system is being built by G4S, with cooperation from utility crews to arrange for placement on each of the 35,000 utility poles around the region. G4S now has 29 crews stringing fiber throughout the region and installing network interface equipment in each of the community anchor buildings. Nearly three-quarters of those have been completed.

Several of the largest communities in the network are those scheduled to have service turned on in June — or in the case of metropolitan Springfield, July. For example, in Greenfield, Northampton and Amherst, Dumont said, access to underground utility conduits is banned during winter months, when asphalt plants are also closed for the season.

“We’ve been getting towns to think they should be active and to think about what makes sense for their community,” she said. Leverett has led the way among communities, designing a network and committing to develop it. To date, the network operator, Axia NGNetwork, has signed up 30 providers. The towns may choose any of them, or recruit an additional provider to use the network and provide telecommunications services

Monica Webb, a spokeswoman for Wired West, a municipal cooperative set up to help its 41 member towns build their “last-mile networks,” said, “MassBroadband 123 does solve a portion of the problem for us, and MBI did a phenomenal job.”

But while the new network is a “good start” for getting service to homes and businesses, she said, the hope is that MBI can help Wired West get funding to connect to end-users.

Dumont said that the MassBroadband network plays a critical role in bringing those “last mile” connections a step closer to reality, and that she sees a role for her agency in helping communities in the next step.

“We’re looking to close the digital divide,” she said.

On the Web: http://broadband.masstech.org

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

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