WiredWest, cable towns seek common ground

BUCKLAND — WiredWest member towns with limited broadband access through Comcast may form a “Cable Town Caucus,” to work together to ensure full high-speed Internet access within their borders.

The idea was proposed by Daniel Lieberman of Shelburne last week, at a Shelburne Falls meeting called by WiredWest, the regional cooperative that is working to bring high-speed Internet to all towns in western Mass.

WiredWest officials wanted to hear how it could help six “cable towns” that are ineligible for state and federal funds earmarked for high-speed fiber-optic broadband in towns with no commercial Internet service.

“What you can bring to the table is political clout,” said Shelburne Selectman John Payne. “Six towns complaining can only make a certain amount of noise. But 42 towns together have more clout,” he said referring to the WiredWest member towns. “How are (Buckland and Shelburne cable committee members) going to explain at annual town meeting why we should make another $1,000 (WiredWest) contribution next year?”

“Are the unserved and the partially served in competition?” he added.

Buckland, Shelburne, Northfield, Conway, Chester and Huntington are the six WiredWest towns with partial high-speed Internet access, through Comcast Cable, but no high-speed access in large sections of town.

Buckland and Shelburne are now trying to get estimates of what it would cost to build out the Comcast cable network to reach all households. Currently, the existing system serves roughly half their populations. News this summer that money in the governor’s $40 million Internet Technology bond bill would go to the 36 “unserved” towns caused partially served cable towns to wonder if they should stay with WiredWest or go their own ways, as Leverett has done, to get wired.

But a $10 million addition to that bond bill, recently passed in the House of Representatives, gives new hope that some infrastructure money will be available as an incentive to induce Comcast to extend its lines even on town roads with fewer than 15 households per mile, which has been the cutoff.

Robert Armstrong, chairman of Conway’s Broadband Committee, said Comcast has extended service to about 120 properties over the past three years since its last contract renewal, with about 70 to 80 of those households signing up for Comcast service. He said some of these properties included fields, vacant dwellings and houses that have been put up for sale.

“Almost every house that has a family in it has purchased (cable service),” he said. “We started pretty leery in our dealings with Comcast, but they have been really great. They worked out deals with people with unbelievably long driveways. I really believe they want our business.”

Armstrong said about 150 households, out of 800, still don’t have cable access.

“Cable towns may get built-out before the other towns get whatever they’re going to get,” said David Epstein, executive director of WiredWest. He noted that cable towns already have the infrastructure to build onto. He said the IT Bond Bill amendment, proposed by state Rep. Stephen Kulik and cosponsored by state Rep. Paul Mark and Sens. Stan Rosenberg and Benjamin Downing, contains roughly $5 million to be used to build out cable service in the six cable towns, with the additional $5 million to assist towns with no high-speed Internet in central Massachusetts.

Kulik, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said there is no specific wording included with the $10 million amendment. “The bond authorization is now specific,” he said. “The primary target is unserved and under-served towns. In coming months, the Legislature will be working with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to develop the ‘last-mile’ program.

Kulik said $5 million is a rough estimate of the costs to build out the cable infrastructure in the unserved areas of cable towns — but how the money will be used “is yet to be determined.”

He said the IT bond bill will be taken up by the Senate in January.

Armstrong of Conway said he would like WiredWest’s help in getting an independent estimate of what it would cost for Comcast to do a build-out.

“I think we need to work out a plan,” said Brian Brault of Northfield. “We are six of 42 towns. We are WiredWest members now. Part of the plan is to figure out what each community’s goals are. I think the idea of a cable caucus within WiredWest is a good idea.”

Conway Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson said it would be helpful if all the cable towns could document their cable needs, and how many miles are left to be wired.

Steve Nelson of the WiredWest Executive Committee said, with potential state bond money available, “I think its important we have a unified statement, so we all speak with one voice.”

Buckland, Shelburne

On Nov. 20, Comcast official Aaron Saunders met with the Buckland Internet Access Advisory Committee to share information about build-out costs and how many houses and how many miles are not served, according to Glenn Cardinal, Buckland Access Committee chairman. The “Apple Valley” section of Buckland is problematic for cable extension, because this deep valley is bordered on three sides by Ashfield, a non-cable town. The question is, whether Apple Valley could get broadband when Ashfield gets fiber-optic infrastructure, or would Comcast be allowed to lay connecting cable lines through part of Ashfield.

Cardinal estimates about 15 square miles of town still need to be “wired.”

In Shelburne, advisory committee Chairman Michael Duffy estimates there are 30 “uncabled” miles in town. He said Comcast’s estimated cost to wire these areas is about $30,000 per mile. He said that includes the costs for renting utility poles, getting permits, and installing the electronic equipment necessary. If Comcast were to pay two-thirds the cost for sparsely populated areas, that would leave an additional $200,000 to $300,000 left to be paid, he said. Duffy said the town is about 60 square miles, and there are 203 unserved households left in a roughly 22.5-mile area.

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

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