Colrain’s town-wide broadband project nearing completion

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2021 4:17:44 PM

COLRAIN — Nearly eight years after residents approved a bond to fund a town-wide broadband project, that project has just a “handful” of installations left to be completed.

About 600 houses in Colrain are now connected to the broadband service. Michael Shuipis, a co-manager of Colrain’s Municipal Light Plant, said he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the number of people in town who have signed onto the service.

“We’ve hit about 70% of all possible subscribers, which is well beyond what we had budgeted for,” Shuipis said. “We were always hopeful that most of the town would sign up.”

The project will bring gigabit internet — up to 1,000 megabits per second — to Colrain residents, who have had several slower options in the past such as DSL, cellular data or no internet at all, according to Town Administrator Kevin Fox.

“Some people had DSL, but not everybody in town because there was a limited disbursement. … Some people had nothing,” Fox explained. “It’s a huge problem.”

Fox said the project is called the “final mile,” which is about bringing internet connections to individual houses. He said the state built the “middle mile,” which brought fiber to the town’s network.

The project is expected to finish at, or under, its target budget of $3.7 million, which was funded by a $2.4 million bond authorization by town residents and a $1.31 million Massachusetts Broadband Institute grant.

“We haven’t gotten all the final costs yet,” Fox said. “We will be either on it or below, that’s a definite. We’re not going over budget.”

The service is provided by Whip City Fiber, a branch of Westfield Gas and Electric. Colrain, which has a three-year contract with Whip City Fiber, is one of several hilltowns that the company has been expanding broadband internet service to and Shuipis said the company has been extremely helpful in navigating this long process.

“Virtually all the towns in the area, including Colrain, were aided immensely working with Westfield Gas and Electric,” Shuipis said. “They stepped forward and provided the expertise and the planning and held our hand through the entire process. … They took on a huge job and stuck it out through years and the sometimes painful episodes to get this done for everybody.”

Fox said there were a “lot of partners” involved in seeing this project through to the end, which includes the efforts of the state, town residents and private companies.

“We had a lot of help from the state as well with this project, both in funding and support,” Fox said. “Locally, we had a Broadband Committee that provided a lot of assistance.”

Shuipis added that some of the “painful episodes” included working on ancient infrastructure — some of the utility poles in town are “100 years old” — that is often owned by large corporations like Verizon.

“Upgrading the system to modern technology, there’s been challenges,” Shuipis said. “The poles are owned by utility companies and we have to rent space on those poles to put fiber in. There’s some challenges working with big companies. … We’re not always their top priority.”

Even though the project is nearly complete, Colrain and neighboring towns are collaborating to add “resiliency” to the broadband service as more people move to these towns. Shuipis said one avenue they are exploring is how service can be rerouted if a utility pole falls so the number of people affected by outages is minimized.

“We actually just barely finished the initial build and we’re already working on a project in conjunction with other towns,” Shuipis said. “We’re working to make that whole system, that whole network, more robust than it is.”

Shuipis said the completion of the project is a great milestone for the town of Colrain in two ways: it brings value to the town and internet is an essential utility in life.

“I think it’s huge. It benefits the entire town,” Shuipis said. “Property values go up for all properties in a town when fiber is brought in. … I wish we had it before the COVID pandemic forced everybody to stay home.”

He added that internet is so ubiquitous in life that it is as necessary as other municipal resources.

“It’s essential,” Shuipis said. “It’s like a town without roads or electric, you can’t live without it nowadays.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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