This is Episode 2 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chris interviews Monica Webb to discuss Wired West, an initiative in rural Massachusetts working to build an open access fiber network. Listen to this episode here.
Christopher: This is Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance back again for a second podcast, talking about community broadband networks. Today, we're talking with Monica Webb about Wired West, an initiative in rural western Massachusetts, that is well on its way to building an open access fiber optic network. First, if you haven't stopped by muninetworks.org lately, we just released a new report detailing how Martin County, Florida, built it's own network to connect schools and other community anchor institutions. They've saved millions by walking away from Comcast. You can find it at muninetworks.org. Our intro and outro music is by Fit and the Conniptions. You can find them at conniptions.org. Now, let's turn to our interview about Wired West with Monica Webb. Monica, thanks for joining me on this show. Can you tell us a little bit about western Massachusetts?
Monica: Absolutely. Western Massachusetts, it's ironic, because often when I tell people that I'm from Massachusetts, they automatically ask me about Boston, which is a great city. Western Massachusetts is pretty different. It's certainly rural. It's very scenic. It's a lot of beautiful, rolling hills and valleys. We are about a two hour drive from Boston and two hours from New York. What that means is that we are a popular destination for a lot of folks who have second homes or who end of actually migrating here for quality of life reasons. We have a lot of culture. People are relatively educated. We have some good universities here. The only pieces of the puzzle that is, of course, missing, is ubiquitous, affordable and adequate broadband access.
Christopher: You have a number of towns out there that are all lacking this broadband access. How did you start coming together to find a joint solution?
Monica: There are close to 50 towns in western Massachusetts that are either totally unserved by broadband or they have partial areas that are served that are the more densely populated areas along main roads. All of our various unserved towns ... It started off years ago, we had what were called broadband committees and that consisted of each town calling our local phone company and mostly begging them to expand their existing DSL footprint. We very quickly realized that was going to be unproductive. We, in the region that I'm in, about 11 towns, we banded together to try and increase our impact at the State house. We chartered a Greyhound bus and went and testified in favor of a bill that would raise State moneys to solve the problem of connecting the unconnected. That effort ... and there were many others that participated in that effort. That ended up becoming a broadband bill of $40,000,000. The State created and agency to oversee that funding. It has gone mostly to a middle mile network that will connect community anchor institutions in all western Massachusetts towns, regardless of their current level of service. There are, as I mentioned, 50 towns that are getting middle mile connectivity and the rest of the towns in the network are already served. That doesn't solve the problem that we initially went to the State house to complain about, which is connecting our homes and businesses. That's when our various towns ... We started to meet each other. The broadband advocates from across the region and realized we all had a united vision, which was this is critical infrastructure. Everybody deserves access to it. If we're going to do it, we need to do it in a way that creates a long term asset that is a responsible use of municipal dollars. That last part may come from the fact that so many of us have been marginalized by the lack of service for so long that we really believe that having an asset that operates in the best interest of the community, while still being financially sustainable, is a really important value.
Christopher: When we talk about towns, you're not leaving out people that are in unincorporated areas. Your town, literally, are all of western Massachusetts, basically. It's the entire footprint of your communities that will be connected.
Monica: That's right. That's right. We're not going to expand the legacy of cherry-picking that we've all been subject to. We're going to reach as many people as are interested. You know it's a different philosophy, a private sector company might look at that and say, "Well, it's not profitable enough to connect those people in rural areas." We would approach it and we would say, "Well, it's profitable to connect people where it's more densely populated." They will then subsidize connecting the folks where it is not so densely populated.
Christopher: I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about the experience that you went through in terms of organizing these towns.
Monica: Our first orders of business was to determine appropriate government structure. We knew we needed something that would enable these towns to work cooperatively together, that would allow us to issue financing and that would enable us to offer tele-communication services. Prior to investigating the options in Massachusetts, we assumed we would have to get special enabling legislation, which, as anyone who follows the broadband movement, knows, that can be especially difficult today with private sector firms objecting to that kind of legislation. We were very fortunate to discover that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted legislation over 100 years ago to enable towns to take action where they had been denied critical infrastructure and critical services, similarly to what we're experiencing today. That was a lack of access to electric service. We found this legislation and the beauty of it was that it had been amended in the 1990s to enable towns to offer telecommunication services. I think once you've lived without a critical service like broadband for so long, there is certainly a common energy and a common interest in creating a local solution to that problem and to overcoming differences and working together to make that to fruition. I think one of the best things we did is we started off with a very wide-base of community support. We invited interested parties from every single town to participate. We've also had over time, a leadership team that has been very good with community organizing and now represents a very solid base of expertise required to move this project forward and that includes financial expertise, legal expertise, marketing, technical and engineering expertise and, of course, the community organizing.
Christopher: Your group has accumulated $100,000s of thousands of dollars, I believe, or maybe it's only, I say, "only" in quotes, $100,000 or so of value through donated time. The efforts of a lot of people that have been above the norm. I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit more about what it really takes to organize 40 different towns because it's one thing to say, "Yes, we have a common interest in this-and-that." There's a lot of work that needs to be done just to make progress with that, I'm guessing.
Monica: What we have been able to do, it's been incredibly inspiring to see the amount of time that people have devoted to this project. Not just time, but resources and in-kind expertise. I'll give you one example, which is the mapping work that we were able to do. We worked with our utility companies. We signed non-disclosure agreements with them, which was a process of negotiation there. They agreed to provide utility pole information in the GIS to us so we could map every utility pole in our towns. One of the companies doesn't map all of the poles, so that required volunteers going out and locating the missing poles on GIS as well as using State orthophotos, laying them over the GIS and checking that all of the pole locations were as they were indicated on the map. Why things like that are really important to leverage is what that means is for us to get to the point of being financed, we have to provide a high level design and engineering plan and cost estimates. A big part of that for an engineering firm would be this mapping. We have effectively taken those resources that would be required for us to raise otherwise and done it ourselves to reduce the start-up costs. There's been additional work. I'm going to say, there's been probably in addition to that in other services rendered, volunteer times and in-kind services in the neighborhood of probably $120,000 as well. We have also received two grants from our local State agency of $50,000 each. The second of which, we are now using to do the rest of the engineering work that we can't do ourselves. We've also used it for a high level market survey.
Christopher: Is that the RFP you've just released?
Monica: That is the RFP that we just released last week. It is a high level design and cost estimate sufficient for bonding. What it means is, it's not the final design that will be used that will be designed and constructed to. It is a high level design and cost estimate that is sufficiently accurate for municipal bond.
Christopher: What are the next steps for you then?
Monica: We have to have a rock solid business plan. We've done our market survey by a nationally recognized firm. The results of that will be used in the business plan. We're doing the RFP, which will generate the cost estimates and the high level network design. We are about to launch pre-subscription, a pre-subscription mailing to all of the residents in our region. There are a number of other tasks that we are currently putting together, estimating take/rate growth, designing our pricing and packaging, that are all part of the business plan. We expect to have that early October. The other major task that we're working on is an economic impact study. That will be able to quantify the economic impact of this type of network on our region. That's really important in procuring guarantors for, in particular, procuring government funded guarantees for the bond in addition to other grant moneys that may be available.
Christopher: My last question then is, one that I think I would like to ask of all of our guests from rural areas, and that's, "How do you respond to this common belief that I've heard from Boston. It's clearly predominant in DC and in major urban areas that people in rural areas either don't know how to use high capacity broadband or that their needs would be simply met by wireless networks?"
Monica: Yeah. Those are two issues that we encounter routinely. In particular, the wireless bias and I think that there's a wide public misconception that wireless is the future simply because there are no wires there. I also think that there are policy makers do promote that because I think it's the path of least resistance in terms of showing some progress on connecting rural customers and kicking the ball down the road in terms of the fact that wireless will not offer adequate bandwidth to drive economic development or to enable businesses. In our area, in particular, just will not reach people because of our topography. It's a short term policy focus where you'll get some people connected. By the time that it is made clear that it doesn't connect everybody and/or that the bandwidth is insufficient, it will be some other policy maker's problem. We really spend a lot of time on education and that includes our legislators and our constituents about the importance of fiber. About how fiber is the only thing that is going to drive meaningful economic development in our region. About the bandwidth needs and how they're growing. I met yesterday with a local film director and special effects pioneer who lives in one of the Wired West towns. He has built a state-of-the-art green screen studio and in talks to do some serious productions there. He has brought serious productions to the region in the past. He's talking aboutuploading terabytes of data from his studio on a daily basis. This is the kind of message that policy makers need to understand. If he has adequate bandwidth, he's going to be creating jobs in the region and low impact jobs. We're not talking about bringing factories into the area. We're talking about attracting very good paying jobs stimulating our local economy specifically. It really is important that we do enable businesses of all types and sizes to be connected and connected with adequate and affordable bandwidth. That is not just something that wireless can do. In terms of, "Do rural customers use the internet less?" I saw a presentation last week by Michael Render that showed that actually rural residents spend more time online than their urban and suburban counterparts. What I can say is, we just don't have a lot of the amenities out here in terms of stores. We do a lot of commerce online. I see no justification for saying that rural areas require less bandwidth.
Christopher: Thank you very much, Monica.
Monica: Thank you for having me on, Chris.
Christopher: Thank you for listening. That was Monica Webb with Wired West. You can find that project online at wired-west.net. We welcome comments and suggestions about this show. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to my colleague, Lisa Gonzalez, for putting the show together and Fit and the Conniptions for the music. Licensed using creative commons. The song is called, "Storm's Over."