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Ashfield waiting for high-speed Internet

ASHFIELD — It’s been two years since a Vermont-based wireless Internet provider optimistically predicted the company would be able to offer Ashfield residents high-speed Internet by Christmas 2010.

But today, the most rural parts of Ashfield, along with other hilltowns are still waiting for high-speed Internet, despite at least a year of discussions with Great Auk Wireless (GAW).

“It never panned out,” says David Kulp, who chairs the town’s Telecommunications Committee and is the town’s representative to the Wired West initiative, to bring high speed Internet to “the final mile.”

“I had numerous conversations with them (Great Auk Wireless) up until last year. We haven’t really heard from them since last October. They visited the Planning Board, because they were interested in constructing a tower in October 2011. But they never really followed up with anybody in town.”

He added: “They never received a dollar from the ($40,000) grant they were awarded from the Mass. Broadband Institute.”

In fall 2010, the Brattleboro-based high-speed wireless and broadband service provider visited Ashfield, Conway, Buckland and Shelburne to gauge if there were enough residents willing to sign up for service to justify the costs of setting up a network of repeaters anchored to telecommunications equipment on Mount Tom, and relaying service to subscribers’ antennas.

During that period of information-gathering, about 250 households from Conway and Ashfield said they would subscribe to such a service. Altogether, about 660 people from six West County towns expressed interest in subscribing to high-speed Internet, if it were available.

In July 2011, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute awarded GAW a $40,000 grant to establish a wireless network for roughly 200 customers in the Ashfield-Conway area.

At the time, a GAW spokeswoman, Melissa Caldwell, told The Recorder the grant could help defer subscriber costs to test a new “white space spectrum” that might provide better service within the hilly terrain, but which could cost seven to eight times more than less efficient technologies.

But the real snag, according to GAW’s founder and CEO Josh Garza, was the inability to lease private land for antenna towers and other equipment at an affordable price.

“We were excited to work with Ashfield,” Garza said Wednesday. He said the purpose of finding out who was interested in subscribing to the service was to help the company pinpoint where repeaters should be set up, to reach the most subscribers.

Great Auk specializes in service to remote rural areas, mostly in New Hampshire and Vermont, he said. The company has been able to lease land for repeaters in rural areas by bartering it for free high-speed Internet service or for a small lease fee, Garza said.

But some of the landowners for the Ashfield sites where GAW wanted to set up repeaters “wanted large amounts of money typically provided by large cell-phone providers,” he said.

He said one landowner wanted “thousands of dollars’ for the site of a repeater that would only serve 150 to 250 people. “There’s not a single site we have that we pay any more than $1,000 for — and that serves a lot more people,” he said.

Garza said service to Conway was dependent upon setting up repeaters in Ashfield.

Without the right sites for the transmitters, he said, the company would end up only serving a small part of the community.

“I didn’t want to be labeled as a company that comes in promising services to everyone and only gives it to someone,” he said. “We weren’t able to make the numbers work.”

He said that GAW spent money on equipment for Ashfield that has never been deployed. When asked why GAW never submitted receipts for any of the grant money, Garza said, “I’m not going to take public money and not use it for what it was supposed to be used for.”

According to Seth Andrea McCoy of MBI, a grant was awarded to Great Auk but expired a year after the award date.

“Great Auk recognized that the work they were doing wouldn’t meet the timeline or level of service that they wanted to provide so they never accepted the funds,” she said. “Additionally, all grants are contingent upon completion of work.”

Since then, says Kulp, some residents have paid for higher-priced satellite service for high-speed access. Also, Verizon provides limited DSL in Ashfield.

He said more people are now able to use cell phones in Ashfield than was possible in the past, “so there is some improvement.”

“Now, we’re just trying to rally interest within the community to support Wired West.”

Wired West, an initiative to bring high-speed broadband to western Massachusetts, is currently asking area residents to fill out Wired West “support cards” indicating their interest in future service. “We need to be able to demonstrate to the bond market there’s sufficient interest” to build broadband infrastructure, said Kulp.

“Our goal is to get over 50 percent of the residents to express interest.”

These support cards have been mailed to residents in many towns and are available in many town halls and libraries. They can also be downloaded at the website:

wiredwest.net

The website says the results from these cards will be used to determine where and when to build the network.

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

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