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Warwick Internet halted 20 yards short of goal

WARWICK — The town’s nearly completed fiber-optic Internet backbone has hit a snag.

Contractors were digging a cable trench on Mount Grace when it was discovered that they didn’t have the necessary permit from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. They were told to stop digging and refill the hole.

“I was outraged by the fact that (the DCR) stopped the project, knowing it took 18 months to get our last permit from them,” said Town Coordinator David Young.

Young said the Massachusetts Broadband Institute has already brought its “middle mile” fiber-optic backbone up Mount Grace, all the way to the last telephone pole leading to a communications tower. Work was halted when a resident saw a small bucket loader on Mount Grace and called the DCR. The agency found that underground work wasn’t covered in permits that had been granted for the project.

MBI Director Judy Dumont said that project plans had originally called for all the cable to be suspended from poles, so the MBI didn’t seek a permit for underground work.

The MBI has strung fiber optics throughout central and western Massachusetts, on more than 30,000 poles, said Dumont. With that scope of work, there are a slew of contractors and subcontractors involved. The subcontractor hired to bury cable on Mount Grace thought they had the right permits, said Dumont.

“It’s really routine and the DCR has been great in working with us so far,” Dumont said.

Though she doesn’t expect it to take too long to get permits from the state agency, the plans will have to be re-submitted for approval with the underground work included.

That means the last 20 yards of work on Mount Grace will have to wait until the federal government shutdown ends. Since the MBI receives federal funding, that approval will have to come from the federal level.

Other sections of town

Though the Mount Grace leg of Warwick’s fiber connection may be put on hold, a high-speed backbone is still on its way to other parts of town.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has brought the fiber-optic “middle mile” to most of Warwick’s nine anchor points, and should be ready to go online by the end of the year, according to Dumont.

Community anchors include Town Hall, the elementary school, the library and others, and Mount Grace made the list because of emergency communications equipment installed on the tower.

Though WiredWest will help Warwick install a wired “last-mile” branching out from those anchors to the rest of town, Mount Grace is different.

Its tower also hosts an array of transmitters that connect a town-owned wireless network to an overburdened microwave radio “backhaul.”

Once the fiber to the tower is connected, tested and lit up, speeds on Warwick’s wireless network will increase drastically.

“Today’s (backbone) connection is 10 megabits per second,” said Young. “Our first buy (on the new connection) will be 120 megabits, and possibly more in the future.

Though the town is among several western Massachusetts communities unserved by major broadband providers, its town-run system has put it ahead of many of its neighbors since 2009. It now has about 200 customers, paying monthly rates of $50, or $30 for half-speed access.

This year, the town installed WiMAX transmitters on the Mount Grace tower, which provide more signal range and faster communications than the radio system in place. Young said the technology’s potential won’t be fully realized until the new backbone is installed.

The old Warwick Broadband system uses radios, with 30 transmitters throughout town and corresponding receivers in users’ houses. The WiMAX system uses fewer, tower-mounted transmitters, and requires less user-end equipment, as many newer computers have WiMAX built in.

Once radio and WiMAX signals get to Mount Grace, a microwave dish relays data to Mount Tom, where it joins the wired backbone.

“We keep adding (wireless) capacity, but an Internet connection is like a chain; it’s only as strong as its weakest link,” Young said.

The slow microwave connection and its high cost both make it the weakest link.

Young said that rates for wired connections are well below microwave rates, and bandwidth could be increased as need grows.

“One hundred megabits costs the same as 10 do on our current system,” he said.

Once a luxury of metropolitan areas, a broadband connection is becoming more and more vital to day-to-day life.

“To us, it’s mission critical,” Young said.

It’s about more than just surfing the Internet.

Cell phone service is spotty at best in wooded, hilly Warwick, and many residents rely on “network extenders,” devices that allow mobile phones to transmit voice calls and data through the Internet instead of cell towers.

“We have customers who signed up for wireless (Internet) just so they could use cell phone extenders,” Young added.

Others in town rely on a broadband connection so they may work from home, and a good Internet connection is a necessity for many types of business as well.

Though Young worried that further delays may affect the project’s grant funding, Dumont said federal money received by MBI has already been spent and state matching funds aren’t in danger.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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