Berkshire town votes looming for WiredWest broadband initiative

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PITTSFIELD >> The first moments of truth are approaching for a regional effort to secure cable broadband service for the rural communities of Western Massachusetts.

Town meeting voters in a number of small communities will be asked to approve bonding for their town's share of extending fiber-optic cable into sections that lack cable Internet or cable television and phone services, and now must resort to lower-capacity or less-reliable options.

"We looked at all the technology in terms of capacity and longevity," said Monica Webb of Monterey, chairwoman of the board of directors of the WiredWest Communications Cooperative, which formed in 2010 and is spearheading the effort.

Current service in the rural towns comes primarily over telephone lines or via satellite, she said, but for the foreseeable future, expansion of cable fiber is seen as the best infrastructure investment a community could make. She described the difference as "comparing an interstate to a dirt road."

There are 44 small towns in five Western Massachusetts counties that were deemed eligible because of a lack of cable service for inclusion in the WiredWest network. The organization itself qualifies for assistance from $40 million in state funding through the Massachusetts Broadband Institute for broadband expansion.

In 32 of those towns, the select board has approved a resolution committing the town to placing the proposal before voters. Steve Nelson, of Washington, a member of the WiredWest board's executive committee, said 12 of the towns are in Berkshire County, and 10 are expected to seek bonding approval at annual or special town meetings this year.

Local towns planning or considering a bond vote this year include Becket, Egremont, Monterey, New Ashford, New Marlborough, Otis, Peru, Sandisfield, Tyringham, Washington, West Stockbridge and Windsor.

Other small towns in the region are considering different options for the time being, he said, which could include setting up an independent network or contracting with a cable firm to extend the network in their community.

The principal local obstacle, supporters said, is the size of the required investment — often more than $1 million per town, based on a cost-estimate formula developed with the Broadband Institute and consultants.

In Monterey, voters will be asked to approve a $1.96 million bond, and will vote separately during a special town meeting a few days after the annual meeting. In Windsor, a $1.39 million bond request is on the annual town meeting warrant, and if approved would require a Proposition 2 ½ override approval on the annual ballot.

"This is a significant investment for these small towns," Webb said, "but they have to understand the downside of doing nothing."

She said those include severely limiting the economic potential of the town, which contributes to population decline, especially among the young, and the type of isolation communities experienced in the past when they were bypassed by rail lines and later interstates.

"This is a pivotal moment for small towns in Western Mass.," she said, adding that voters need to take "a leap of faith" in the positive effects of townwide broadband access.

The negative effects, she said, are clearly illustrated in comments from local real estate agents, who report that streets or homes lacking broadband service are being rejected out of hand by many potential buyers.

For those towns that are ready to vote — including Webb's home town — residents will be asked at town meeting to approve bonding for their estimated share of costs to extend fiber cable to "the last mile" within their communities. Approval by two-thirds of meeting voters is required to authorize a bond.

A previous $90 million state and federally funded initiative, overseen by the Broadband Initiative, extended cable service into the centers of 123 small Massachusetts communities — usually connecting to municipal buildings, schools and libraries.

The hope was that commercial cable providers would then expand the networks out through all sections of the rural towns, but that hasn't been the norm.

"In an ideal world, Comcast or Time Warner would be doing this," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, "but they haven't stepped up."

The apparent reasons commercial firms have not extended cable service in rural areas typically relates to the small numbers of potential customers per mile.

Webb and Pignatelli both cited the importance of educating voters on the benefits of broadband service, as well as on the costs and methods of payment.

In addition to votes to approve bonding for a town's share, individual residents are being asked to put up deposits and commit to joining the network. A commitment by 40 percent of households in a town is required, along with a $49 refundable deposit toward the first month's bill.

According to figures on the WiredWest website, some towns have reached the minimum 40 percent of household sign-ups, and many others are making significant progress. The figures for each community are posted on the website — at https://register.wiredwest.net — along with information on how to sign up.

Nelson said that phase of the project only began in earnest in early March with a mass mailing effort, and as of Friday, more than 4,900 households had signed up. He added that, after nearly four years of work on the WiredWest initiative, during which the organizational structure and method of funding was hammered out, he finds himself busy with meetings and daily discussions but also "very excited" about the progress and the looming town votes.

Once enough towns — especially those in core cluster areas — approve joining the network, Webb said WiredWest would move toward constructing the cable network and managing the service. It is expected that WiredWest would contract for some services and work with a number of firms or entities, she said.

Nelson said the Broadband Institute would construct the network, and WiredWest would then own and operate it. The active WiredWest board includes a delegate from each of the towns and the executive committee, which handles day-to-day decisions and operations, he said.

It is expected that some customers could have broadband service within two to three years. "My sense is that some towns are really impatient," Webb said, "and they are organized and have educated the public."

Those, she said, could approve a bond this spring, while other towns might fail to gain the necessary votes immediately because residents feel they need more information. Webb said WiredWest is committed to working with those towns to provide information and technical or other assistance, such as on the anticipated costs and on bonding strategies.

What could provide "a powerful incentive," she said, is seeing nearby towns benefiting from broadband service.

One aspect of the bonding process, she said, is that it can be structured to cost little over the first five years while the infrastructure is being constructed. The actual amounts being requested of towns also are maximum estimated figures, she said, meaning the costs could be reduced if expenses are lower than anticipated or additional state or federal funding becomes available.

Pignatelli said it is vital that town officials and project supporters thoroughly explain the proposal to voters. "It is a big nut to crack, and it's going to be a hard sell" at some town meetings, he said.

But Pignatelli said the key point is that "broadband is probably the biggest economic development investment we need to make."

He said the potential for small businesses is significant in the area. "There is great potential for home-based businesses; I think it's the economic future in Berkshire County," he said.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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