Wired West Plans Muni Open Access Fiber in Western Massachusetts

A grassroots effort in the broadband desert of Western Massachusetts has been organizing local communities to build a publicly owned, open access FTTH network to everyone in the partner towns (universal access). This story notes that 33 Towns had joined the effort by early May, but the current map of supporting towns show 39 supporting towns now.

Some towns voted to join unanimously; very few have opted not to join the dialogue. Towns are asked to pass this proposed warrant article at their Town Meeting (a practice common in the New England area):

Article [X]:
To see if the Town will vote to enter into immediate discussions with other Western Massachusetts municipalities with the intent of entering an inter-municipal agreement, by and through the Select Board, pursuant to Chapter 40, Section 4A of the Massachusetts General Laws, for the purpose of establishing a universal, open access, financially self-sustaining communication system for the provision of broadband service, including high-speed Internet access, telephone and cable television to the residents, businesses and institutions of these municipalities; or act in relation thereto.

The preamble to the warrant article [pdf] offers the context:

WiredWest Communications, a community broadband network representing citizens in more than 30 towns in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties, has studied how to make high-speed Internet access available to every household and business in our rural towns and has concluded that a universally-accessible, municipally-owned fiber-optic network, open to all providers, is the best solution. We believe that commercial Internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, will never expand significantly to reach unserved customers and will certainly never deliver universal coverage. Building it ourselves is our only alternative.

Participating towns will "be convened and pressing issues of governance and inter-municipal agreements will be addressed" in late June.

Though nothing is finalized (obviously), they explained one financing option in the Town Meeting handout [pdf from Google Docs]:

We expect to finance the construction primarily by low-interest loans (municipal bonds) plus additional loan guarantees or funding from state, federal, or private sources. Loan payments are paid by revenue from the use of the network – not by increased assessments to taxpayers. Overall capital required to construct the network is dependent on several variables that are currently unknown – foremost being the size of the network and the extent that the state and federal government will build some of the network – but we expect the cost to be between $50 and $150 million. The towns together will decide on the budgeting details, but towns are choosing to participate with the expectation that this will incur no additional debt burden, although start-up funds for administrative, technical, legal and marketing needs may be spread across all – probably 40 or more – member towns at a cost of about $1 to $2 per resident. With the passage of this article, our town joins with the other towns to ultimately set the budget and if we decide that participating in WiredWest is too burdensome for whatever reason, then we can quit.

The people organizing this effort admit they have a long way to go and recognize the difficulty, but they are taking it seriously and have done their homework.

We don’t have all the answers, a detailed business model hasn’t been determined, and this isn’t going to be easy, but we’ve thought long and hard about our broadband dilemma in western Mass and believe that a community-owned fiber optic network is the best way to achieve universal access and provide the best quality services in cooperation with existing telecommunication providers.

Once the warrant article is passed in participating towns and the towns come together to form a joint entity then all of the nitty-gritty details will be worked out. Together, democratically, in the best interests of the residents, the towns will determine the best course of action: we’ll nail down costs more precisely, perform market research to determine the number of residents who are likely to subscribe to various services (e.g. internet, phone or TV), figure out the best structure for governing, building and operating the network, settle on the technical details of the network “architecture”, work closely with public and private institutions to determine the best financing strategy, and we’ll “run the numbers” over and over to ensure that we can make this work.