Leverett will drop price of municipal Internet while upgrading bandwidth

Last modified: 1/5/2016 8:41:27 AM
LEVERETT — Already viewed as a model for how a small town can build and operate a high-speed Internet system for its residents, the Leverett Municipal Light Plant announced this week that prices for LeverettNet broadband and phone service will be reduced beginning in January.

The lower monthly prices coincide with bandwidth upgrades from one gigabit to two gigabits that also go into effect Jan. 1.

The news come on the heels of an announcement last week that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will not allow the current broadband build-out and operational plan to move forward that WiredWest is pursuing with about two dozen other rural communities, including several Hampshire County hilltowns, as well as Shutesbury, Leverett’s neighboring Franklin County town.

LeverettNet, which went live earlier this year, can serve all households in the community of nearly 2,000 residents. Currently, 624 households are connected to the network, representing about 81 percent of the town.

Denzel Hankinson, a member of the municipal light plant, said the decision to lower monthly fees was made as a way to spread the benefit to subscribers after completing the build-out.

“None of it was a great surprise,” Hankinson said. “It was simply a case of assembling things in ways that were best for the subscriber base.”

Selectboard member Peter d’Errico, who is also a member of the municipal light plant, said $5 per month was originally included as part of the monthly bills for potential legacy needs, such as fax machines and other equipment that might not be compatible with the broadband network. It turned out, though, that no residents were using obsolete equipment.

Beginning with the January billing, the price will drop from $44.95 to $39.95 per month for combined phone and Internet. Telephone alone will go down from $29.95 to $24.95 per month.

The median residence will also see a lower-than-anticipated impact on property taxes, with $219 per year for the financing bond to build the network, much lower than the original estimate of close to $300 per year.

The light plant, along with Holyoke Gas and Electric, which provides network operation and maintenance, and Crocker Communications of Greenfield, providing the high-speed Internet and phone service, collaborated to review the finances and usage and determined that the adjustments could be made.

Leverett became the first of about 45 rural communities in western and central Massachusetts to complete the so-called “last mile” network that ties into a 1,200-mile fiber-optic network built by the MBI. The 39-mile aerial network was approved for construction in 2012 when Leverett voters OK’d a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion for a 20-year bond to pay for the cables, and also received $666,0000 from MBI.

In part because usage has been continuing to increase since LeverettNet’s summer launch, the light plant decided to double the gigabits available.

“Because of the initial large bandwidth, subscribers are jumping on it in a wholehearted way,” Hankinson said. “Because of the obvious trending situation, we decided to make a pre-emptive move.”

Hankinson believes residents are being informed of the changes in a newsletter this week.

D’Errico said he believes others can draw lessons from the experience in these challenging times for getting broadband to rural communities.

“It’s the preferred model because it involves local ownership based on local taxpayer support,” d’Errico said.

MBI has described WiredWest’s current proposed agreement for member towns as “not compatible with the best interests” of the state, the towns or residents. This plan calls for WiredWest to install and operate the high-speed lines, rather than having each community own them.

WiredWest sold itself as a potential network builder and provider, saying that if the towns borrowed the startup costs and signed up about 40 percent of the potential customers, the fees for those customers would over time repay the taxpayers’ loan and cover operating costs.

The model would have towns pay for two-thirds of the network cost, and fund the rest with $40 million funneled through MBI, an amount the state allocated for towns in western Massachusetts without broadband.

While some observers have looked at Leverett as unusual because it had expertise and experience before making its initial decisions, d’Errico said other towns can now rely on MBI for this. “Leverett was at least two years in front of the MBI-provided expertise,” d’Errico said.

D’Errico said he appreciates the work done by WiredWest, but argues that after it gained grass roots support in many communities, it should have stepped aside. Other towns, he said, might consider moving ahead on their own.

“If we were a town unbuilt at this point, I wouldn’t hesitate to get into a partnership with MBI to get a build started,” d’Errico said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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