Massachusetts Broadband Institute critical of WiredWest plan

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A state entity is butting heads with WiredWest over its planned operating agreement, claiming the proposal "contradicts" efforts to ensure every home and business within the Western Massachusetts collaborative gets high speed Internet service.

After a review of the proposed agreement, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute found it had several flaws and urged WiredWest member towns to hold off signing the agreement, which is expected to take place in early January.

The MBI controls the allocation of state funding that will pay for about a third of the cost to build a 21st century broadband network for 31 participating communities — 24 having already approved the local taxpayer share needed to pay for the project. The other seven towns have until July 1, 2016, to make the financial commitment.

While an MBI statement issued this week indicated the state money could be withheld if the agreement isn't revised, MBI Director Eric Nakajima has vowed his agency will continue to work closely with the collaborative.

"We're absolutely committed to working with the towns ... and the money is not in jeopardy at all," he said in an Eagle telephone interview on Wednesday.

However, WiredWest legal/governance Chairman Steve Nelson claims his group was "blind-sided" by the statement, given that the two entities have met weekly since September 2014 to discuss the operating agreement and the accompanying business plan.

"MBI is trying to seize control of the project and how the towns spend their money," he said.

Nelson is also the town of Washington's delegate to the WiredWest board of directors, comprised of one representative from each member town. In all, 44 communities make up WiredWest, but 13 aren't are actively involved in pursing the regional broadband network.

MBI's key sticking points with the operating agreement are:

• Towns lose direct ownership of the network, as a separate limited liability corporation is being formed to control and manage the system.

• WiredWest would be structured in a way that creates unnecessary financial and operating risk for the towns.

• The proposed agreement doesn't allow towns the flexibility to respond to a changing market and the future interests of its residents.

"A lot of what is in the statement is what we have been trying to convey [to WiredWest] these last few months," Nakajima said.

Nelson disputed MBI's assessment of the agreement, saying, "WiredWest is nothing but the towns — ownership is being transferred to itself."

He also questions whether the MBI is truly committed to working with a regional entity trying to establish high-speed Internet service.

"The risk is being too small and dealing with the market out there all alone," Nelson added.

Otis is among the handful of towns across the commonwealth willing to go it alone. Town officials in late summer agreed to pull out of WiredWest and work directly with the MBI to develop its own broadband network, citing some of the same concerns MBI had with the collaborative's proposed structure.

WiredWest was critical of Otis' decision, but felt it could easily survive the loss of Otis, according to Monica Webb of Monterey, chairwoman of the board's executive committee.

"However, in reviewing the financial impact of Otis' nonparticipation, we have noted the financial model is stronger without Otis, due to the high costs of wiring the town and the large number of seasonal residents," Webb said in a September email to The Eagle.

Nelson noted the board plans to meet 9:30 a.m. Saturday in Northampton's old courthouse to discuss MBI's critical review of WiredWest's operating agreement and business plan. The meeting is open to the public.

Meanwhile, the MBI has scheduled later this month another round of update meetings for residents of WiredWest communities:

Dec. 14, 5 to 7 p.m. at the John W. Olver Transit Center, 12 Olive St. in Greenfield, and Dec. 17, 2 to 4 p.m. at Berkshire South Regional Community Center, 15 Crissey Road, Great Barrington.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233.


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