Steve Nelson: A thirst for broadband
Imagine a future time when, after years of snowless winters and dry summers, Western Massachusetts faces a water supply crisis. Open a faucet and water just trickles out. New "broadwater" technology is available which could transport huge volumes of water to the region through "fiber-aqua" pipes. But companies building broadwater systems are not serving rural areas because they don't see any profits to be made there. So the commonwealth of Massachusetts creates the Massachusetts Broadwater Institute (MBI) to build a network of pipes in unserved towns.
Excitement grows as crews lay pipes along major roadways. But as the MBI project nears completion, anticipation turns to frustration when people realize that the pipes will serve community facilities like town halls, schools and fire stations, but not homes and businesses. Pipes may pass directly in front of your home, but you can't connect to them. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.
Today in Western Massachusetts the crisis is not the flow of water but the flow of information. Many people can only get Internet connections which are just a trickle compared to the high-speed Internet service offered elsewhere by cable and phone companies. But they do not serve many rural areas because they don't see any profits to be made there. To bring service to people in those areas, the Patrick administration created the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Using state and federal funds, MBI is building a fiber-optic network in 123 Western and Central Massachusetts towns, known as MassBroadband123.
Excitement is growing as crews string fiber-optic cables along major roadways. A segment of MB123 will go live next month in south Berkshire County, with a completion date this summer for the entire network. It will serve Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) such as town halls, schools, libraries, and public health and safety facilities. A worthwhile endeavor, but anticipation is turning to frustration as people realize that their homes and businesses will still not be served after the network is built. Fiber "pipes" may pass directly in front of your home, but you won't be able to connect to them.
To solve this problem, 42 towns in Western Massachusetts, including 14 in Berkshire County, formed a municipal cooperative called WiredWest to build a "last-mile" fiber network to connect virtually every home and business to the MB123 "middle-mile" network. In order to join the cooperative, each town had to pass a warrant at two town meetings by a two-thirds vote, which in most cases was unanimous or nearly so. The people in these towns have spoken. They want the same quality of fiber broadband service for their homes and businesses as the CAIs, many of which being connected by MBI are in cities like Pittsfield and Springfield already served by cable companies.
Working with volunteers from its towns, WiredWest has mapped over 70,000 utility poles where it will string fiber, and the structures they will connect. It commissioned an engineering study to evaluate the technologies and costs for constructing the network. It conducted market research to forecast the demand for broadband -- high-speed Internet as well as digital phone and video -- at different price points for various packages of services.
With this data and other information it gathered, including the experiences of municipal broadband networks already operating around the country, WiredWest built a powerful computer model to determine the resources it will need for constructing and operating the network. As a municipal cooperative, WiredWest does not look to make a profit on the project, but its network must be financially sustainable for decades.
To underscore the need for the last mile, WiredWest is asking people in its member towns to sign "Support Cards" showing that they are "seriously interested" in getting connected. To date over 10,000 households and businesses have signed up, either by mailing in cards or by filling out a simple form at www.wiredwest.net.
MBI has done an excellent job building the middle mile and connecting CAIs. But the goal of providing broadband service to rural Western Massachusetts will not be achieved until fiber connections are available to homes and businesses as well. Having fiber pipes along our main roads leaves unconnected residents and business and professional people more thirsty than ever for broadband.
Just as Massachusetts was able to leverage limited state funds to obtain federal money to build MB123, so too should the commonwealth now provide limited funds to enable WiredWest to leverage federal and private sources of financing. Not to build the last mile is simply unacceptable.
Infrastructure and economic development are critical issues today. Nothing will contribute more to economic development and the quality of life in Western Massachusetts than completing the fiber-optic infrastructure able to satisfy the thirst for broadband, a thirst which will grow as yet-to-be-imagined uses for the network are surely developed in the years ahead.
Steve Nelson is a member of the executive committee of WiredWest. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of WiredWest.