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Holyoke Success Spurs Interest in Mass Muni Networks - Community Broadband Bits Episode 162

A few weeks back, we noted an excellent new report on Holyoke Municipal Light Plant in Massachusetts published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This week, we discuss the report and lessons learned from it with David Talbot, Fellow at the Berkman Center.

David gives us some of the key takeaways from the report and we discuss what other municipal light plants are doing, including how Holyoke Gas & Electric is using the state owned middle mile network to partner with other municipalities like Greenfield and Leverett.

Finally, David offers some insight into how the municipal light plants that have not yet engaged in expanding Internet access think about the challenges of doing so. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) episode 65, where we interviewed Tim Haas of Holyoke Gas & Electric.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

WiredWest Grows: Roster of Towns Up to 22

Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.

According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.

Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:

A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.

Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:

Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.

Communities in western Massachusetts are each taking up authorization needed to cover their share of the connectivity project. All but one of 23 towns voting thus far have exhibited strong support. In Montgomery - that one town that did not support the proposal - the measure lost by only two votes, reported the Berkshire Eagle. Chesterfield and Goshen approved funding earlier this month, both to big crowds of voters. Leyden approved their participation at a meeting in May with a 90-33 vote.

Of the 45 towns eligible to participate and obtain state funding, 33 Select Boards have committed to presenting bond authorization measures before their voters. Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest's Board of Directors told the Eagle in June:

"Ultimately, the overwhelming votes so far are a resounding affirmation that the citizens, businesses and institutions of Western Mass. towns underserved by broadband are ready, willing and eager to move forward with the WiredWest regional fiber network."

We spoke with Webb in May in episode #149 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Local residents who were tired of dial-up and satellite established the cooperative as a way to band together and turn up the volume on their collective voice. Each community has representation on the executive board and will receive a share of state funding designated for the project.

At the meeting in New Salem, the town's Broadband Committee Chair MaryEllen Kennedy told told the audience:

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire, another reason we thought a government co-op was the way to go."

The next step in New Salem and in other Massachusetts communities where voters have approved borrowing is to hold a special town election to approve an exemption to Massachusetts' Proposition 2 1/2 tax levy limit.

Princeton, Mass, Setback in Muni Fiber Quest

Folks in Princeton, Massachusetts have anxiously awaited better broadband for about two years as community leaders explored ways to deploy fiber in the community. According to the Telegram, the wait will be even longer than expected. The tentative deal between Princeton and Matrix Design Group for a public private partnership is over.

As we reported last December, 90 percent of voters attending a special town meeting approved a measure to borrow funds to get deployment started. Princeton planned to use $1.2 million for make-ready measures to pave the way for Matrix to install its FTTH network. The town would not have to pay any more to construct the network, but they would be sacrificing control over the infrastructure.

Apparently, it is this lack of control that soured the proposed deal. From the Telegram article:

But while the town authorized borrowing the money, the broadband light plant commissioners could not secure authorization from bond counsel to borrow the money without an operating agreement that said the town had control over the design, construction, operation, maintenance and pricing of the network.

In a Princeton press release [PDF]:

“Matrix, citing its business model, was not willing to discuss or negotiate its position of network control for a period of 20 years before turning it over to us,”[said Stan Moss, Princeton Selectman and one of the leaders of the initiative].

As part of the agreement between Princeton and Matrix, the city would have obtained control and ownership of the network after 20 years.

Another wrinkle in the plan appeared when Princeton learned that they would not qualify for grant money available from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). The organization is handling distribution of state and federal funds to assist in local deployments. Handing over control of the network to a private party in such a fashion is against the criteria established for grant eligibility.

The Princeton Broadband Committee will petition bond counsel to move forward to approve $1.2 million so the community can continue with make-ready plans. In the mean time, Princeton will get back out there and seek another partner.

While we are sympathetic to the people in Princeton who must wait longer to get fast, affordable, reliable broadband, we are somewhat relieved they have another chance to develop a partnership with more local control. The community may have felt protected because they were not investing in the full cost of a network, but without ownership the community would be unable to ensure it had the level of service it will need.

The Latest on Wired West Rural Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 149

Our second episode of Community Broadband Bits featured an interview with Monica Webb, Chair of the Wired West Board and Spokesperson. Three years later, we are excited to have Monica on the show again to update us on their recent progress.

As we recently noted, the state has decided to contribute significantly to the capital costs of a network connecting these rural towns and the towns are currently voting on whether to move forward.

In our discussion, we discuss Wired West and what it is like to live with very poor Internet access in 2015. You can read all of our coverage of Wired West here. Keep an eye on @Wired_West on Twitter for breaking news - 2 more communities voted to move forward with overwhelming majorities last night!

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Shutesbury and Wendell Residents Ready to Vote on WiredWest

Five months ago volunteers in Shutesbury gathered to inventory local poles to prepare for a possible fiber deployment. Now, more than 40 percent of local households have committed to high-speed Internet access through WiredWest, reports MassLive. Nearby Wendell is also celebrating the 40 percent milestone. According to the article, these are the first communities in the WiredWest region to reach the 40 percent milestone

The next step will be a required two-thirds vote at a town meeting to authorize borrowing to fund the deployment in each community. After that, a majority of voters must approve a debt exclusion in Shutesbury and Wendell to invest in the capital projects as required by state law.

Shutesbury's Broadband Committee Co-chair Gayle Huntress told MassLive that it was no surprise that the community reached the 40 percent threshold needed to move to the next step:

"We are internet-starved," she said. "You should see the people sitting in their cars outside the library and town hall to use the wireless signal."

A small portion of Shutesbury residents already have access to the internet via Verizon DSL, which is built upon deteriorating copper telephone wires, said Huntress. Others use satellite dishes.

Shutesbury is home to approximately 1,800 people on 27 square miles. Wendell is a bit larger at 32 square miles but only 848 people live there.They expect to borrow $1.66 million and $1.19 million respectively to apply to the cost of deployment in their communities. 

Massachusetts has offered to contribute up to 40 percent of the funds to connect rural towns to the state's MassBroadband 123 middle mile network, but local communities must contribute the remainder. In Shutesbury, the total cost of the deployment is estimated at $2.58 million.

Massachusetts Towns Consider WiredWest Opportunity

Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.

Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.

WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.

The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:

[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.

“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. ... The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.

“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.

“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”

Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.

The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.

As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.

A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.

The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.

Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden's alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:

A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.

“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.

Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:

“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. ... They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”

Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December [video below]:

James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”

Princeton Voters Want to Bring FTTH to Their Rural Massachusetts Community

On May 13, Princeton voters decided to continue their municipal network planning. At the annual town meeting, 91.4% of voters passed Article 4 [PDF], authorizing a new Municipal Light Plant. A year ago, voters approved a measure to proceed with planning.

Princeton, a community of 3,300 residents and 1,270 households, has DSL access available to approximately 49% of residents. Satellite, dial-up, and wireless are the other options. 

Entrepreneurs rent office space in nearby communities with better connectivity. Real estate professionals bemoan bad Internet because it lowers property values. A 2013 survey revealed an overwhelming desire to take action. Residents and businesses want an FTTH option.

The Worcester Telegram reported that the community also voted to appropriate $17,000 to make-ready costs, possible legal fees, construction costs for telecommunications huts, and other possible network costs.

"Passing Article 4 will allow us to start negotiations with the vendor," said John Kowaleski of the Broadband Committee. "Without passing this article we will have to wait two years to approach this subject again."  

According to Selectman Stan Moss, the community continues to explore a variety of options. Community leaders have met with several providers to discuss public/private partnerships. Large corporate players, including Charter and Comcast, are not interested in working with Princeton.

The community is also considering a pilot project as a starting point. MassBroadband 123, the network of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will soon serve local schools and several public facilities in Princeton (it should be noted that MBI has been saying "soon" for a few years). The schools will transistion from T1 lines to the new MBI fiber. Community leaders hope to eventually capitalize on the infrastructure to reduce overall costs and expand the reach of Princeton's future infrastructure.

MassBroadband 123 Complete in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) just announced that the 1,200-mile fiber network MassBroadband 123 is now complete.

According to the official announcement, the middle-mile network will eventually serve over 1,200 community anchor institutions. The open access network, constructed with $45.4 million in stimulus funding and an additional $40 million in state bond proceeds, lit up in March 2013. Schools, hospitals, and municipal government are some of the entities already connected.

Communities with a history of little or no middle-mile options will now have some level of connectivity via MassBroadband 123. The Commonwealth hopes to attract last-mile providers to connect homes and businesses, something we have yet to see succeed. We are afraid a more likely scenario will be a few providers seeking to connect the highest revenue customers with no intention to connect everyone, an outcome that would perversely make it more expensive to build financially sustainable networks in these areas.

A few places, like Leverett and Princeton, plan to invest in their own publicly owned infrastructure and will have the option to connect to the outside world through MassBroadband 123. This is an excellent approach that we applaud because it leads us to universal access.

According to a Bershire Eagle article, the state legislature plans to bring more funding to the initiative for last-mile connections:

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

In our experience, middle mile networks change the economics of the operating costs for fiber networks, not the capital costs. The high upfront capital costs are what deter investment and robust middle mile networks do little to change that reality, which is why communities are smart to step up and make the necessary investments.

In Western Mass, Holyoke Gas and Electric Brings Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode #65

Holyoke Gas & Electric has been connecting community anchor institutions and local businesses in Western Massachusetts with fiber networks for years. Rather than using exception access to the Internet as a competitive advantage over more poorly connected neighbors, the Municipal Light Plant (in the parlance of Massachusetts law) is helping nearby towns to establish their own networks.

I met Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas in a lunch with people building community owned networks in Leverett and Princeton in late August. He joins me for episode #65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Holyoke approach, its network, and enthusiasm for assisting others in the region to improve access to the Internet.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

MassBroadband 123 Lights Up in Rural Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative's (MBI) MassBroadband 123 network is becoming a reality. On March 28th, MBI lit up the first 35-mile stretch, linking Sandisfield, traveling through Otis, and connecting at the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park hub. The inaugural connection was the first in a series of build outs that are scheduled to be completed by July 2013 [PDF of map and schedule].

MassBroadband 123 is the middle mile open access network snaking its way across central and western Massachusetts. The project, funded with $40 million in state bond proceeds and $45.4 million in stimulus funding, is scheduled to bring the 1,200 mile network to the anchor institutions in approximately 120 communities. While MassBroadband 123 will not offer last-mile connectivity to residents, it will bring the possibility to many rural areas that have little or no options today. Communities with their own networks, like Leverett, will be able to connect with MassBroadband 123. Hopes are that the open access nature of the network will inspire private providers to offer more last-mile connections.

MassLive.com reported on the first use of the network by school children in rural Otis. Kids at Farmington River Elementary School connected in Spanish with kids from Columbia and learned about physics from the NASA Goddard Space Fight Center in Maryland:

“It was really excellent,” said Mary G. Turo, principal of Farmington River Elementary, in a phone interview. 

...

“We are a little isolated,” Turo said. “Having the capability to bring the outside world to us, you cannot put a price on it. We want our kids to be ready for the future. In order to be ready to for the future they have to know what is going on outside their hometown .”

Judith Dumont, director of MBI, compares the expansion of the network to government efforts to expand electricity in the 1930s. From the article:

Back then, the profit motive wasn’t enough to bring electricity to small towns, so the government stepped in to help build economies.

“This project says it is not OK for these communities to be left out of the 21st century economy,” she said.

While we agree with Judith regarding the need for public and private investment, we would go a bit further to note that when the federal government stepped in with electrification, it made sure that the connections were controlled by the community via coops and local governments. We wish our present federal government learned those lessons too and didn't believe that throwing money at Wall Street firms would solve rural problems.

We believe MassBroadband 123 is an important tool to help rural Massachusetts communities but we believe further public investment will be necessary to make sure everyone is connected. And where public dollars are spent, networks should be accountable to the community - now and in the future.