Steve Nelson: Banding together for broadband
WASHINGTON, Ma. -- "Broadband network done." That was a front-page headline in the Eagle on Feb. 19. In fact, the real work of bringing broadband to your home or business still lies ahead. There is a solution in sight, but only if those of us without access to broadband work together to get there.
What is done is MassBroadband123, a fiber optic "middle mile" network connecting municipal institutions -- town halls, public health and safety facilities, and schools and libraries -- throughout western and parts of central Massachusetts. This was built by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) with state and federal funds. With the massive capacity of this fiber network, we now have a solid foundation but only part of the infrastructure we need to assure our access to 21st century communications technology for many years to come.
A year ago I wrote on this page that watching the middle mile being built was like seeing big water mains being laid alongside roadways with no way to connect pipes to your house, because at the time there was no concrete plan for those pipes. ("A Thirst for Broadband," Feb. 25, 2013).
Coincidentally or not, less than three weeks later Governor Patrick announced funding to support deployment of "last mile" broadband pipes to homes and businesses, a $40 million item in a nearly $900 million bond bill for state information technology projects. That bill, H. 3770, with the broadband piece since upped to $50 million, passed the House unanimously last November and is awaiting action by the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets.
To complete the last mile and serve people now without broadband will cost about $100 million in total. So assuming the bond bill passes, and it is highly likely to, where does the other $50 million come from? In that Feb. 19 article, state Representative "Smitty" Pignatelli was reported as saying that "the time is now" for companies "like Comcast or Verizon" to step up. But waiting for them to solve our last-mile problem is like "Waiting for Godot." That's the title of one of the great theater works of the 20th century, in which two guys stand around talking while waiting for someone named Godot to show up. He never does.
It's time to stop talking and "waiting for Comcast" or "waiting for Verizon." We the people of Western Mass. have the power to solve the last mile problem ourselves. Forty-two towns have formed WiredWest, a cooperative dedicated to "bringing broadband home" to our citizens.
WiredWest has done the technical analysis, the financial modeling, the market research. With the support of the governor, MBI and our legislative delegation -- and to be fair, Smitty has long been a supporter -- WiredWest is ready to act.
To raise the remaining $50 million, WiredWest is in the process of applying for federal funds available to support deployment of rural broadband. It is also considering raising funds by issuing a bond, which it has the legal authority to do, and asking its member towns to backstop it. What this means is that towns would pledge their borrowing authority to make payments on that bond only in the event that WiredWest is unable to do so from its service revenues. This financial backstop will make the bonds salable.
But WiredWest believes, and its business plan demonstrates, that towns will not be called on to make any payments. Indeed, according to that plan, WiredWest could well generate sufficient cash flow to be able at some point to give money back to the towns and/or reduce the cost of its services.
Two things are key to WiredWest's success. First, people must sign up for service, and we all know that people in our unserved towns are thirsty for broadband. Without it, our kids are being cheated, and so are we. But don't think about moving to a place with broadband, because you'll have a tough time selling a house without it. When built, the last mile network will be an asset to everyone in the towns it serves, fostering economic development and improving our quality of life.
Second, we must all pull together toward our last mile goal. The regional solution WiredWest represents is the only way to achieve the economies of scale, operational efficiencies and cost-effectiveness to make such a network feasible and sustainable. It requires a large-enough base of customers and the support from many towns joining forces. A small town going it alone and building its own network is not a viable approach to the big challenge of building and operating such complex and costly infrastructure. It's running a sled race with just one dog.
Banding together through WiredWest, our citizens and our town officials can finally do what the private sector has failed to do for too many years: bring us all broadband service.
The writer is the legal/governance chair of the WiredWest Executive Committee. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of WiredWest.