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Nelson/My Turn: The last mile can’t wait

If you’re on a car trip or in a road race, reaching the last mile means you’re almost there. Not so with the task of building a “last mile” fiber network to bring broadband to those citizens in western Massachusetts with poor Internet service or none. In many ways, that journey has just begun and there may be some rough road ahead. But we can get there from here.

As The Recorder reported on Feb. 20, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has completed its “middle mile” fiber network to serve municipal institutions such as town halls and public safety, health and educational facilities, but not homes and businesses. This lays an essential foundation on which to build last-mile infrastructure. But how?

To do just that, 42 towns in western Mass., including 17 in Franklin County, formed the municipal cooperative WiredWest. To join the co-op, each town had to pass an article in two town meetings by a two-thirds vote, which in all cases was unanimous or nearly so. The people in these towns have made WiredWest their designated driver for the last-mile journey. They also have local oversight over how WiredWest operates. Policy for the co-op is set by its board of directors, which is comprised of one representative from each member town.

The big question, of course, is: Where does the money come from to fuel the journey? Thanks to Gov. Deval Patrick, state Rep. Steve Kulik and other members of our legislative delegation, $50 million would be made available to MBI for last-mile construction under a bond bill that passed the House of Representatives unanimously and is awaiting action by the state Senate, perhaps as soon as early spring. With the total cost of the last mile estimated to be $100 million, WiredWest is working on raising the other $50 million. The federal government is a possible source for some funding, as it was for the middle mile. But towns must also take some responsibility for deploying the last mile.

WiredWest is actively discussing with local officials how that might work. WiredWest has the legal authority to issue a bond, which could be backstopped by the towns (like co-signing a loan), and perhaps the state, without requiring towns to actually make any payments to service the bond unless at some point WiiredWest is unable to. But the risk of that happening is minimal. WiredWest has developed a comprehensive financial model for building and operating the last mile. It shows that a “take rate” of perhaps 40 percent of households signing up for service is key to the financial viability of the network. Forty-six percent have already signed “Support Cards” saying they want service from WiredWest. In some other rural broadband projects around the country, the take rate has exceeded 80 percent.

In that Recorder article, some officials expressed hope that the private sector will step up to extend the last mile off the middle-mile infrastructure. But large cable and telephone companies build and operate their own proprietary closed networks and have yet to show any real interest in using the middle mile to provide broadband to homes and small businesses. You’ve seen the ads: “Verizon. It’s the network.” Verizon’s network. Comcast is trying to buy Time Warner Cable, saying that if the deal is approved they will divest 3 million subscribers. They’re not looking to add new customers in those rural western Mass. towns they have long declined to serve.

Comcast does currently serve some parts of four WiredWest towns in Franklin County — Buckland, Shelburne, Conway and Northfield — and two in Hampshire County. About $5 million in the bond bill may be used to incentivize Comcast to extend service to the rest of those towns. There is precedent for such government support. Last month, New York State awarded a $5 million grant for Time Warner to provide broadband in seven North Country towns. If cable became available in unserved areas of those six partially cabled Massachusetts towns, would people take it? Conway recently renegotiated its franchise agreement with Comcast, which then extended its cables past another 125 homes. Within a month or so after service became available, 90 percent of them signed up.

In the landmark play “Waiting for Godot,” two characters stand around talking while waiting for someone named Godot to show up. He never does. We can’t stand around “waiting for Verizon” or “waiting for Comcast” to build the last mile. We must move forward now. There may well be a role down the road for smaller companies to work with WiredWest, which it is ready and willing to consider. But its member towns have designated WiredWest to lead them on the last-mile journey. It is critical to our economic well-being and quality of life in western Mass. that we reach our destination. Together we will.

Steve Nelson is legal/governance chair of WiredWest. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of WiredWest.

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