WiredWest fiber network a possibility again in the hilltowns

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The kind of rural fiber broadband network once championed by WiredWest may yet come to pass.

But it is likely to cover less territory. And how much of it will be operated by the retooled cooperative remains to be seen.

As of this week, four contiguous Western Massachusetts hilltowns — Cummington, Windsor, Plainfield and Ashfield — are poised to work together to create stronger, less expensive and more reliable fiber networks than they could on their own.

All of the towns received direct grants from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to further their efforts to build town-owned systems.

Managers of the four towns' municipal light plants are already meeting to coordinate planning.

"In the best-case scenario, we can all light up at the same time," said David Kulp, of Ashfield, who leads his town's broadband project.

The group will meet Thursday to continue to share information, members said, looking for ways to benefit each other and to gain economies of scale.

"We're moving forward," said Allan Douglas, head of Cummington's municipal light plant. "It's been a long haul."

Waiting in the wings is WiredWest, the nonprofit entity that pushed for years to own and manage a large fiber network on behalf of towns. Until December 2015, it was on track to ally with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to roll out a large fiber network.

That plan hit a wall when Eric Nakajima, of Amherst, then the MBI director, flagged concerns about ownership of networks built with state and local taxpayer money.

Last January, after being unable to overcome that objection with the MBI, WiredWest rolled out a scaled-back proposal to towns in which it would assist them in operating fiber networks.

"They changed direction," Jim Drawe, who leads WiredWest, said of MBI. "And we survived it."

Hopes for a regional network accelerated this year when the state agreed to provide direct grants to towns wanting to build and own fiber networks. Most of the towns, but not all, had not been courted for service by Charter Spectrum or Comcast, even with financial incentives from the state.

Drawe, of Cummington, said WiredWest has so far signed up four towns — including Washington and Windsor in Berkshire County — to negotiate exclusively with WiredWest to handle network operations.

"The rubber is about to meet the road," Drawe said. "The WiredWest role is to consolidate operational [aspects of] the towns into one."

Drawe said WiredWest plans to subcontract out the work, from selecting an internet service provider to billing to network repairs. The group now has 24 members, down from the number reached before the past year's push by MBI and the Housing and Economic Development Office to provide incentives to cable firms and grants to towns.

Like many of the hilltowns, WiredWest has chosen to work with Westfield Gas & Electric, the municipal utility that is building a fiber network in its home city and assisting towns like Otis, and eventually Windsor and Cummington, with their fiber network projects. Drawe said a proposed 50-page contract between WiredWest and Westfield Gas & Electric is under review.

The block of four fiber towns that already share borders will grow, if Goshen and Worthington opt in.

WiredWest has asked its member towns to commit to working with it by Nov. 1.

While some have signed up, others, like Ashfield, are waiting for construction projects to advance, leaving open the option of running the networks on their own until enough neighboring fiber networks are up and running to sustain a regional operation.

"The towns are doing their due diligence," Drawe said. "WiredWest has always been a cooperative of the willing and the able."

But even before networks are active, neighboring towns are finding value in working together.

Douglas, the Cummington municipal light plant manager, said the towns are discussing ways to handle customers on their boundaries.

On part of Shaw Road in Cummington, people on the east side of the street live in Goshen. Residents of the Windsor Pond neighborhood receive their utility service through Plainfield. And at least one road in Buckland gets its telephone and electric service through Ashfield.

"We know we all have 'edge' issues," Douglas said.

And when designing their networks, the contiguous towns are considering places where they may make a bundle of fiber strands available for interconnection across a boundary.

One advantage of linking networks is the ability to reduce the number of connections to the internet — and the cost. Connecting networks also builds in redundancy, allowing systems to find other internet connections if parts of a network are damaged by a storm.

"They could hook their fiber together and form a ring, so everybody would not have to connect," Drawe said.

Scouting location

This week, representatives of Cummington's fiber project met with Westfield Gas & Electric to scout locations for the space needed to house a network's electronics — known as the "hut."

Brenda Arbib, of Cummington, said one site under review is the town's public safety complex on Fairgrounds Road.

"That was an extra $50,000 that we weren't counting on," she said of the cost of a hut.

"It's a lot of work and questions still come up," Arbib said of the project. "It's not easy."

One question concerns cost. Until it can work out what the network will cost to build, Cummington cannot name a monthly cost for service, but predicts it will be under $100 per month. It has not yet conducted a survey of utility poles, a key factor in calculating costs.

In addition to a $840,000 grant from the state, Cummington voters in May 2015 authorized $1.4 million in borrowing. That sum stands ready to assist but has not yet been borrowed.

Town officials are still debating how much of the network's cost should be covered by subscribers and by local taxation.

In the meantime, Douglas is meeting with his fellow municipal light plant managers from neighboring towns, already embracing the concept of a regional network.

"We're concerned with getting it off the ground with Westfield Gas & Electric — and getting some motion," he said. "There's a lot to go through yet."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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