Tuesday September 4, 2012

By Scott Stafford, Berkshire Eagle Staff

Rural Berkshire County residents yearning for high-speed Internet access where none exists may have reason to hope.

WiredWest officials are work ing toward a fully install ed and functioning fiber optic broadband network, consisting of more than 2,000 miles of cable, throughout its 39 to 43 member towns by the end of 2014.

Nat Karns, director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said WiredWest has a realistic shot at achieving their goal.

"There are some very knowledgeable folks working with WiredWest with the technical, financial and business background, a strong professional mix that really makes a difference," Karns said. "And I think it is crucial for 21st century economic development, education and health care services."

According to Monica Webb, chair of the WiredWest executive committee, 39 Western Massachusetts towns in Berkshire, Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire counties have already joined the municipal cooperative that will allow the organization to apply for grants and issue bonds.

The WiredWest cooperative was officially formed just over a year ago, in August 2011. Since then, it has mapped out a plan for moving forward.

Support cards are being distributed to residents of member towns to determine how many customers are likely to seek broadband services from WiredWest. For those who wish, their support can also be registered at wiredwest.net.

Once completed, officials will have a better feel for how many customers will be served and how much revenue will be generated. That will help them determine the best way to finance the installation of the fiber optic network.

The cost of installation will likely range between $60 to $120 million, Webb said.

A marketing survey was conducted in March.

The survey "showed a strong demand for high-end broadband service, including for home office use," Webb said.

Average survey respondents have two computers (desktop, lap-top or notebook devices) in the home. And while 88 percent currently have some type of home Internet service, 45 percent are dissatisfied with the speed of their Internet.

The survey also showed that 25 percent who responded currently run a business from home or telecommute. An additional 30 percent said they would likely operate a business out of their home or telecommute if they had better Internet access.

In many areas of the county, where cable TV providers and phone companies have declined to offer Internet access because the return on their investment wouldn't be high enough, economic development and commercial activity are hampered by sub-standard broadband communications capabilities.

In other parts of the county such as Great Barrington, where Internet access is available but users describe the service as slow or insufficient for their needs, residents want service that provides better speeds and higher bandwidth.

"Many people are saying they would start a home-based business or telecommute if they had better broadband access," Webb said. "And there are a number of second homeowners that would stay in the county longer, or relocate here full time, if there was better Internet service."

The impact on the regional economy could be significant. Webb described the role of broadband access to the local economy as "fundamental infrastructure," comparable to the telephone service and electricity.

"We know it will be good for the economy, we're just not sure of the total impact," Webb said.

In October, a network design and a cost estimate for the installation project should be complete. Between six and nine months later, Webb said, officials hope to have secured enough funding from a variety of sources.

Then bidding on the installation project can begin, with work to start a few months later.

"I'm optimistic we will be doing some stringing in 2013," Webb said. It would take about a year to compete the network installation.

Towns that are already members of WiredWest are Alford, Ashfield, Becket, Blandford, Buckland, Charlemont, Chest er, Chesterfield, Colrain, Conway, Cummington, Egre mont, Goshen, Great Barr ington, Hawley, Heath, Hins dale, Leverett, Leyden, Middlefield, Monterey, New Ashford, New Marlborough, New Salem, Northfield, Otis, Peru, Plainfield, Rowe, Royalston, Sandisfield, Shel burne, Shutesbury, Tolland, Warwick, Washington, Wend ell, West Stockbridge and Worthington.

Four other towns, Florida, Savoy, Lanesboro and Hunt ington, are in the final stages of joining the coop.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford