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Ashfield man pitches high-speed Wi-Fi plan

Ashfield Town Hall  Recorder/Paul Franz

Ashfield Town Hall Recorder/Paul Franz

ASHFIELD — Christopher Gray wasn’t in Ashfield when a Vermont-based wireless Internet service provider came to town, proposing to set up high-speed wireless Internet service for residents by December 2010. Those plans never materialized, but now that the “middle mile” installation of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s 123 Network has been completed, Gray is hoping to set up service in Ashfield, and eventually in other hilltowns where schools, libraries and town halls have a fiber-optic connection.

Doing business as Hilltown Networks, Gray hopes to provide high-speed wireless Internet to residents, using mounted panel antennas on the Town Hall steeple from the fiber-optic connection. He is offering the Town Hall free Internet service in exchange for the right to place antenna panels on the steeple.

The first phase, he said, would be to make the service available to most households within the town center.

The second phase would be to set up repeaters to transmit the signal to other areas of town.

A public meeting is planned at Town Hall on March 20, beginning at 7 p.m., for Gray to explain his proposal to the public, to get residents’ input and gauge their interest. He has already heard a concern about how the antenna would look on the historic Town Hall steeple, and is planning to bring some visuals to the meeting.

Gray is a mechanical engineer who moved to his family’s farm and farmhouse in 2010 — and found the satellite-based Internet service there to be “terrible,” he said. “I recognized there’s a need for high-speed Internet — and we hope WiredWest will fill that need — but it may take some time.”

Until the WiredWest multi-town initiative can build a fiber optic infrastructure for “last mile” rural hilltowns, Gray is proposing a Wireless Internet Service Provider, which is known as WISP.

“We’re going to be taking Internet surveys on our website, which would determine where the repeaters would go,” he said. “That’s the overview. The intention is not just to do it in Ashfield, but in other towns currently connected” to the state-provided fiber cables that have reached many town-owned buildings.

That website is already set up with a survey questionnaire, at: www.hilltownnetworks.com

Gray said he has been talking with town officials in the hilltowns surrounding Ashfield, who also seem interested in his plan.

In November, Gray first spoke to the town Selectboard about his plan. And since then, his proposal has been reviewed by, and recommended by, the Historic Commission, the Town Hall Building Committee and the Technology Committee.

The old Great Auk Wireless Inc. plan of 2010 had called for an 80-foot monopole telecommunications tower with a dish-shaped antenna on top that would send and receive signals from another tower.

Gray’s proposal calls for panel antennas, which are enclosed antennas in rectangular containers. Gray says the panel antennas he’s considering would be either 28 inches tall and six inches wide; or 4 feet 3 inches tall and 1 foot wide. Unlike other types of antennas, the panel antennas can be aligned vertically.

His proposal says that the equipment would be installed “as deemed visually appropriate” by the Town Hall Building Committee and Historical Commission. Hilltown Networks would also carry general liability insurance.

“Ideally, they would not be very visible at all,” Gray said of the antennas. “They could be externally mounted in a non-obvious way. In the event they’re really not acceptable visually, we’ll work in a way to mount them that doesn’t affect service too much.

“I really want what’s best for the people,” he said. “If they say, ‘We don’t want it. We don’t want to look at this panel antenna,’ then we won’t do it. If the town says ‘No thank you,’ that’s OK.”

“I recognize the problem (of poor Internet service), and I see a solution, if that is in the best interest of the town,” he said. “If it can’t be done in an aesthetically pleasing way, that’s something that I want to know. ”

Gray said it’s also OK with him if, when a better technology comes along, people switch to a direct fiber-optic connection.

“My goal is to provide a system that is really transparent,” said Gray. “You want a system to be a good as possible. The whole model isn’t worked out yet. I don’t want to promise too much, until I experience what’s possible. These people are my neighbors, and I want to help them.”

Gray said service would start out at about $50 per month. “Once we get a decent amount of subscribers, and make sure everything is (working), we intend to open it up to higher and lower (priced) options.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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