Broadband push by Wired West hitting outskirts

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BOSTON -- A group representing residents is fanning out across rural Western Massachusetts to begin the final leg in efforts to bring high-speed Internet to unserved and underserved communities.

Wired West, a partnership composed of 44 member communities, met recently to hammer out a more coordinated strategy, according to Monica Webb, of Monterey, chairwoman of the group. These communities hail from Berkshire, Hampshire, Hampden, Franklin and Worcester counties.

At a meeting at the Statehouse, hosted by state Sen. Stan C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, legislators met with representatives from the Franklin County Council of Governments (FRCOG), the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI) and WiredWest to discuss the next phase of the project.

The discussion, according to Webb, yielded a comprehensive plan, cost estimates and timetable for connecting residential customers in each town. The plan will begin with regional meetings to share information and data with residents and local officials, while feedback is gathered and options are evaluated.

Webb explained that the three entities have agreed to convene in working groups on a weekly schedule to accelerate planning and deployment.

"This will put us on track to meet with town selectboards this fall to provide updates and relay more details on town financial participation," she said.

WiredWest was formed in February 2010 by a group of regional broadband advocates who decided to consolidate their efforts in extending the MassBroadband 123 Network to cities and towns.

The network currently connects municipal institutions such as town halls, libraries, schools and public health and safety facilities throughout Western and Central Massachusetts. Now the broadband initiative has entered its final phase, known as the "last mile," which would bring service to individual residences and businesses.

Webb acknowledged that there is considerable skepticism in many communities, which have clamored for high-speed Internet service.

But, she said, this more comprehensive strategy has given rise to new hope that broadband is finally coming.

"I'm as optimistic as I've been in years," she said.

In addition to representatives from WiredWest, the MBI and the FRCOG, state legislators involved included state Sens. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Steven Brewer, D-Barre; as well as state Reps. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, Steven Kulick, D-Worthington, Paul W. Mark, D-Peru, Denise Andrews, D-Orange, Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, and Ann Gobi, D-Spencer.

The significance of this meeting was to get these entities and legislators all on the same page.

"The best way forward to close the connectivity gap is through regional cooperation," said Philip Holahan, interim director of the MBI.

"We were doing these things previously, but we were working in silos," said Webb. "It wasn't productive.

"I think it's tougher than folks know to make sure the wires go down every road and into every driveway."

Downing said the $50 million earmarked in July for the project will get it off to a good start, but more private investment will be needed.

WiredWest has more than 13,000 individual commitments to subscribe to the service, said Webb. That is about 45 percent of the population projected to be served, she said.

"This partnership is the way to go to get the best bang for our buck," said Downing.

"I get calls every week about this," Pignatelli said. "It's long overdue. Sadly, the private sector, the Comcasts, the Verizons, won't help us. But that's fine. We'll get this done."


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