West County towns move forward in broadband process

  • Officials in Ashfield, Charlemont, Hawley and Monroe are moving forward in the processes of bringing broadband to their communities. Courtesy photo/Wikimedia Commons

Published: 10/29/2019 6:11:46 PM

Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Sen. Adam Hinds and Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, among other leaders, watched a “core bore,” a type of drilling used to replace outdated utility poles.

Updating utility poles has been one step that many local towns have been doing to bring broadband to residents.

After observing the drilling, Baker announced an additional $5 million in funding for the Last Mile Infrastructure Grant, a state-wide initiative to fund designing, engineering and constructing municipally-owned broadband networks.

Statewide, 21 municipalities are eligible for Last Mile funding, eight of which are in Franklin County: Ashfield, Heath, Charlemont, Colrain, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe and Wendell. Though other towns have received funding previously, the process of bringing broadband to the towns has taken years.

“The state has not provided official notice to the towns for the allocation” of additional funding, said David Kulp, the municipal light plant manager of Ashfield.

However, he said, “We understand that it will be a $350 per installation subsidy.”

The installation fee is what connects a house or business to a municipal internet infrastructure, also called a distribution network, Kulp said.

Ashfield

Earlier this fall, a contractor walked away from its bid in Ashfield, and the town recently awarded a new bid cheaper than its first one. The current bid, awarded to Sertex for $1.07 million on Sept. 30, will build a distribution network for the town, Kulp said. He added that crews will begin the first week of November and the process should take about six months.

The distribution network will be about 80 road miles of cabling, all stemming from the Ashfield library basement, where the network’s hub will be housed. After delays, construction to make the library basement suitable to house the network is slated to be done by Nov. 15, Kulp said.

“In Ashfield, it looks hopeful that we could start our first installation (to homes) around the New Year,” Kulp said, “A few lucky homeowners around Christmas or New Year’s will start to get internet from our fiber-optic network.”

Charlemont

Charlemont will apply for an additional $400,000 in funding from the state’s Last Mile Contingency Fund, according to a statement on the Broadband Committee’s website, charlemontconnect.org. The town is eligible because its “make-ready” — or infrastructure preparation — costs are above the state’s estimate. Still, the project is on budget, and the town does not anticipate borrowing money until fiscal year 2021.

The town has submitted its applications to National Grid and Verizon, and each utility has given Charlemont a timeline: National Grid will finish its work by May 2020 and Verizon is slated to be finished in October 2020, according to Broadband Committee member Trevor Mackie.

“Based on these dates, we hope to begin rolling out service to part of town in the first quarter of 2021, and have service in all parts of town by the end of 2021,” the website states.

Meanwhile, the committee has awarded two construction contracts to ready Charlemont Town Hall. One will retrofit the basement to house a network hub room, and another will install broadband components, conduit and a fiber vault outside.

“At the same time, we are finalizing the railroad crossings and a couple other neighborhoods on how we are going to serve them,” Mackie said.

The town’s original plan included installing the broadband network over four railroad crossings, and, due to its cost, the town has redesigned its plan so that only two railroad crossings at public ways will be used, Mackie said. As the public ways already have utility poles and existing wiring, the process will be easier.

Hawley and Monroe

Hawley and Monroe are half of a four-town broadband committee, which includes Florida and Savoy, and is chaired by Lark Thwing, of Hawley. Thwing said he communicates with the state through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and also with WiValley, the company that will handle electrical aspects of the installation and will provide maintenance to the system. The four towns will have joint ownership over the utility pole infrastructure and the internet service provider will be OTELCO, Thwing explained.

There is no fee to connect to the internet infrastructure, but there will be an installation fee after the internet infrastructure is up and running, Thwing said.

An approximately 10-week delay in creating the utility pole infrastructure occurred in the past year, Thwing said.

“The principle delay was the lack of poles due to wet weather in the fall (of 2018), and then hurricanes and wet weather in the spring,” in the southeastern part of the country, Thwing said, which prompted the four-town entity to order poles instead from the Northwest.

Ultimately, though, the four towns received the poles from the south and put a hold on their order from the Northwest, Thwing said. Some of the poles from the Northwest will likely be used as spares.

The delay and orders from different parts of the country “(change) the budget by about $18,000, and we have a contingency fund mechanism built in,” Thwing said.

“The $18,000 was going to be about $900 per town,” he said, with the vendor and the state picking up the rest of the tab.

Thwing said the hope is to install approximately 18 utility poles by the start of November, which will allow for a test of internet signal.

“The priority of the vendor is to first and foremost get the poles in. The second thing is to get the (internet cables) to these poles and the last thing is to connect customers,” he said. “We expect that by the end of the winter, we should have everybody connected (who) wanted to be connected.”

Reach Maureen O’Reilly at moreilly@recorder.com or at 413-772-0261, ext. 280.




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