From unserved to connected: Leverett's fiber-optic system a model for rural towns
LEVERETT — Inside a green metal building in Leverett, lightning-fast internet connections pulse through yellow-coated fibers, one per customer.
One strand belongs to Susan Valentine, an artist who lives down the hill on Long Plain Road in this Franklin County town.
"Man, it was a long time coming," she said recently.
Another fiber threaded into the rack inside one of LeverettNet's two electronics huts provides Kathleen Lafferty's economic lifeline.
Nearly two years after Leverett first lit segments of its fiber-optic broadband service, this $3.7 million project is a point of pride for Lafferty — and most everyone in this community of 1,800.
Before, the mood bordered on shame.
"I couldn't tell any of my clients what my office situation was, before broadband," said Lafferty, a freelance editor who works from home and needed to receive large files. "I'd have to go to the library for downloads. It's totally different now."
Come April, it will be two years since Leverett began to close its digital divide — way ahead of other unserved Massachusetts towns, including more than a dozen in Berkshire County.
When state officials arrived to help Leverett celebrate Oct. 2, 2015, they declared the town a model.
"Leverett shows it can be done," said Eric Nakajima, then executive director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. "We look forward to building on their success in partnership with towns throughout Western Massachusetts."
But within months, that portal seemed to snap shut, lost amid turnover within the MBI and its split with WiredWest, a regional cooperative poised at the time to bring fiber-optic service to dozens of towns.
Today, leaders of broadband committees are looking again at Leverett.
Peter d'Errico, a retired University of Massachusetts professor and founding member of Leverett's Municipal Light Plant, said it came down to a willingness, after years in the digital slow lane, to act. An MLP isn't a thing or a place, it's the legal entity that oversees a municipal utility such as this.
The town of Leverett, d'Errico said, simply decided: "We're going to do it."
And now, recent policy shifts at the MBI provide incentives for towns that want to follow Leverett's example by working on their own, with key state funding, to create municipal broadband networks.
After the build
Two years in, work to oversee a town-owned broadband network continues — just not as frenetically as before.
At a meeting of the MLP last week, d'Errico worked his way through a busy agenda with fellow board members Tom Powers and Denzel Hankinson and with plant manager Margie McGinnis, who doubles as the town's administrator.
The Eagle sat in to get a sense of the inner workings of a modern broadband network.
Leverett's MLP is the only one in the state to focus solely on telecommunications.
"We're the new guys in town," Powers said.
Leaders of broadband efforts in more than a dozen unserved towns hope they're not far behind.
Leverett has already sought to export its expertise, making good on Nakajima's promise a year and a half ago. Minutes of a multi-town meeting Sept. 27, available on the town's website, are thick with legal and technical concerns facing anyone trying to follow in the town's footsteps.
Last week, the board checked in on progress to shift the town's 670 broadband customers — out of roughly 800 households — to a new internet service provider.
By putting the ISP function out to bid last summer, LeverettNet found a cheaper alternative. This month, it is shifting customers to a new vendor, OTT Communications, from Crocker Communications.
The cost of service will drop $5 a month. As a municipal network, prices to customers can fall as well as rise.
The agenda also reviewed recent repairs. One falling tree did $13,000 in damage to the network. The fact the tree stood on Hankinson's property brought him in for ribbing, and prompted debate over whether to file an insurance claim.
Trees may be a broadband network's main problem. "Branches fall more often than you realize," d'Errico said.
Another repair concerned a homeowner at 19 Dudleyville Road in North Leverett who had been using a broom to lift a low-hanging fiber line whenever a truck paid a call.
But the homeowner misjudged one day last fall and waved a driver through. Down came the line. Repair cost: $1,800.
"We can be shocked at how much it is, or at how little it is," Hankinson said of repair bills.
In recent meetings he and others have taken steps to improve network security. They continue to monitor bandwidth use. And while they know of customers who have set up servers in their homes, LeverettNet continues to classify all customers the same way, going back to a founding principle.
Everybody would pay the same price for download speeds of one gigabit per second — an industry standard.
Not cookie cutter
While Leverett shows that towns can successfully build, own and operate broadband networks, LeverettNet's leaders caution that every community must set its own goal, then take smart and careful steps to reach it.
They say the $40,000 they spent to plan their system, a bill paid by the state, determined those objectives.
One principle the town followed was to put the system's operation in the hands of three outside vendors — and then to monitor their performance closely. LeverettNet has no paid staff.
"We just aren't big enough to do all the things that have to be done," said Powers.
Other unserved towns are considering partners, including Westfield Gas + Electric, that would handle all network operations — from build to billing.
After its network was constructed by Millenium Communications Corp., LeverettNet hired Holyoke Gas & Electric to operate it, Crocker Communications to provide ISP services and Collins Electric to handle repairs.
Leverett received $806,000 from the state and financed the rest of the network through local property taxes and borrowing.
The average yearly tax impact per household was first calculated at $219, but after substantial savings through refinancing, that figure is down to around $100 a year, according to Powers, in addition to monthly fees for service.
In the end, d'Errico said, planning for a successful network comes down to nuts and bolts, not ideals.
"I think right now there's too much vagueness in people's ideas," he said of other communities. Recently, he saw a slogan from a candidate promoting "universal affordable broadband."
"Now when I see that, it's like apple pie. Wow, that's really great." d'Errico said. "But what I want to know is do they have any apples? Do they have ovens? Do they have baking pans?"
Because of the town's small size, LeverettNet's leaders conduct informal surveys just by talking with neighbors. They did run a formal customer poll, and found no problems.
d'Errico says that when customers seek help, first through the ISP contractor, they often add a postscript: "They follow up by saying, 'I'm so happy we have this.'"
"If people get grumpy, they send emails or call Margie," said Powers. "It's like all small towns."
Lafferty, the freelance editor, said LeverettNet has made a significant difference in her life. "We're really proud to have this service available to every household in town," she said.
And Valentine, the artist and fellow Long Plain Road resident, is solidly in the satisfied-customer category. "We are the most fortunate little tiny town anywhere in the state," she said. "We have better internet than Amherst or Hadley."
Both women say that after they got service, they discontinued their DirecTV service and started streaming shows.
That prompted both to make runs to the transfer station, ferrying away unwanted satellite dishes.
At Leverett Crafts & Arts, a gallery and studio complex in the town's center, the network is saving people money, according to Walt Burnham, its executive director. The nonprofit was paying Verizon $130 a month; its LeverettNet bill is $96.
"It's a good service and it's saving us some money," Burnham said. "If you've got enough tax money, it's definitely worth doing."
Soon after the network got up and running, 80 percent of Leverett households were buying service. That has risen to 85 percent.
The fiber call
Leverett was able to afford fiber to the home, viewed by most as the best technology. But d'Errico notes that if the numbers hadn't worked out, Leverett would have had to make another choice.
With twice the road miles and half the people, another town might not be able to afford fiber, he said.
Through the building phase, towns need solid advice, as well as someone in their corner, said Powers.
"What you really need is a top-notch project manager," he said. "Some one who is experienced and technically knowledgeable in installing this type of system."
That's key, he said, because things are sure to get complicated — and testy.
"You need someone who understands both the economics and technology, as a project manager, in order to negotiate that adversarial relationship — which will start almost immediately and go throughout the entire project," Powers said.
Hankinson said the town's pledge to provide equal pricing, and to serve everyone regardless of the difficulty of hanging fiber to their homes, was pivotal, as was its move to go with gigabit speeds.
"We don't regret that for a minute," Hankinson. "It's getting used and we're adding to it."
As the town nears the second anniversary, members of the MLP board are still waiting for the workload to settle down. The ISP changeover increased it for a spell. But they're no longer meeting almost daily, as they did during the buildout.
"Take it piece by piece," McGinnis said, when asked about that stage of a project. "And let everything evolve."
Towns embarking on projects today will compete for outside vendors, they warn.
Only two ISP contractors replied to LeverettNet's request for proposals. Not all electricians know how to splice fiber-optic cable, they say.
Though a raft of state officials and lawmakers attended LeverettNet's ribbon-cutting, that novelty isn't like to last.
"We were the first in the Valley. Being the first in the Valley means you get a lot of attention and a lot of service," said Hankinson. "And that's not a benefit that the second in the Valley, or the 10th in the Valley, is going to have. It has helped us to our job in an intangible way."
d'Errico said a sense of fiscal conservatism guides the board. "We want to survive. Long term, we want to be there," he said.
But at the start, this wasn't a business for cowards, he said. "You do maximum due diligence — and there's still a leap of faith."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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