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Warwick ramps up its wireless net

Recorder/Paul Franz
Reva Reck, a computer consultant from Warwick, in her rented office in Northfield that has internet access.

Recorder/Paul Franz Reva Reck, a computer consultant from Warwick, in her rented office in Northfield that has internet access.

WARWICK — Even as a new state-sponsored fiber-optic connection is making its way to the smallest of Franklin County towns, this community of roughly 750 is adding onto a 4-year-old wireless Internet system that’s already serving about half its households.

If that’s meant that Town Administrator David Young and other residents have to climb ladders to install new antennas to pick up a radio signal that bounces a high-speed connection from Springfield to Mount Tom, then off Mount Grace to repeater stations around Warwick, folks in this can-do town seem convinced it’s worth the effort.

Connecting the Warwick Broadband Service directly to the MassBroadband 123 network once it comes to town in June should speed up the local system 10 times, says Young, who originally contemplated adding $65,000 worth of equipment to the system the town built to take advantage of a topographical anomaly: a landscape dominated by 1,617-foot Mount Grace, with an existing fire tower on top. Service fees paid to the locally run operation have already paid back the $40,000 originally borrowed by the town in 2009, Young says.

Now, with 155 households served in town plus another 30 in neighboring Northfield, Wendell, New Salem, Royalston and adjacent southern New Hampshire, a MassBroadband middle-mile connection could help with what’s been seen as “one of the chief bottlenecks” to the wireless network.

Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which had also paid for the initial year-long wireless “beta test” that led to Warwick’s initiative, contributed $50,000 toward the new equipment: three off-grid solar power supplies, a tower for the new antenna, and testing and sites for six repeaters to get the signal to more people, said Young. He originally saw the repeaters as a way to back up the town-owned network, “but then I thought, ‘Why not use both?’ The size of the radio links has been a limiting factor on our network.”

The MassBroadband 123 connection will allow Warwick to deploy a new “state of the art” Wi-Max system that will be noticeably faster to subscribers, Young said.

When he started the system, which he runs in his spare time when not performing his town administrator functions, “I was so focused on the ‘last mile’ that we hadn’t considered how we would provide the Internet.”

Young looked at various solutions, including bringing in 10 T-1 lines, and found it would have been far too expensive, four times the $1,500 a month cost of the radio signal the system now uses.

Now, Young says, “We’ll put that $1,500 to work when we get the new system and get 10 times as much connectivity. The 123 net is just a game changer, like an automobile coming in during the horse-and-buggy days.”

With the new connection, Young is convinced that the system — which has brought in $285,000 in revenue over its four years, enough to pay back the town’s initial investment and also help pay for installers and enhancements as needed — can serve just about all of the remaining households in town

“I’m sure we’ll find someplace that’s a bridge too far,” Young said. “And we can’t do it at speeds that fiber to the home can do,” he said.

Warwick, although the largest and most successful fixed-wireless system in the region, isn’t alone. There are a handful of sites in Wendell and New Salem that also make use of the Warwick signal, beamed from Mount Grace, and the designer of those systems, Douglas Norton of Access Plus Communications, has also set up a system in Rowe, using a signal beamed via a repeater antenna atop Florida’s Whitcomb Summit from Mount Greylock in North Adams. Each of those communities are looking to a wired, fiber-to-the home network for a permanent solution eventually.

“There really are limits to fixed wireless in the areas we’re talking about,” said Norton, because of the hills and dales that prevent the signal from reaching many homes easily. Norton’s company also serves customers in Savoy, using a signal beamed from Mount Tom, which was originally seen as being able to serve some customers in Hawley and Charlemont. “It’s hit or miss,” Norton said. “You think you’re going to get to a lot more people than you do.”

He added, “MassBroadband 123 provides us with a back-haul service into town. But the value is related to our ability to distribute the signal.”

Reva Reck, a Warwick Broadband Committee member whose Northfield Road home is out of reach for the existing wireless network, says, “The typical pattern is that people are ecstatic when they get on Warwick broadband after dial-up or satellite, because it’s so much better. But then they want to do more and more on the Internet. It’s a combination of having the bandwidth and the fact that the culture and the technology are changing.”

She adds, “I’m very proud that in Warwick, we did this — volunteers did this, and people who are smart and were willing to dig in there and learn. But it’s hit or miss whether it can get to people.”

That’s why Warwick, a member of the WiredWest municipal cooperative, has also been circulating WiredWest “support cards” to residents to see how many want the co-op’s regional fiber-to-the-home solution. Reck, who is a WiredWest delegate from her town as well as a member of its executive board, says, “A lot of people who sign WiredWest support cards in Warwick are people who have Warwick broadband — a disproportionate number.”

But a WiredWest solution may be two years or more away. Warwick’s wireless network, like much smaller networks in New Salem, Wendell and Rowe, provide a function now.

Young calls the upgraded wireless network “an intermediate solution” until the WiredWest network can be built, using the soon-to-be-deployed Mass Broadband 123 middle-mile. The WiredWest fiber network is something he says he’ll be happy to sign up for.

“We dearly hope fiber-to-the-home gets here,” he says. “WiredWest would help our customers, and it would put us out of business ... and we’d have a party.”

— RICHIE DAVIS

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