Steve Nelson: Broadband project hanging by a thread

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WASHINGTON, MA. >> A year ago, voters flocked to town meetings to decide whether to authorize borrowing money to bring high-speed broadband internet service to homes and businesses in western Massachusetts.

The voting was in response to a plan presented to town officials by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and the municipal cooperative WiredWest. It called for MBI to build a regional fiber-optic network to be owned and operated by WiredWest on behalf of its member towns. WiredWest had been advocating such a "last-mile" solution for years.

People turned out in such large numbers that some meetings had to be moved to another building because the crowd couldn't fit in town hall. They voted for the funding, despite the fact that it could increase property taxes, by margins of 80 percent, 90 percent and even in a few towns unanimously.

Anger replaces hope

It was an exciting time. A solution seemed to be at hand for the high-speed internet access our small towns so desperately need. Twenty four of them approved a total of $38 million. With an anticipated $22 million in state funds from MBI, the $60 million on the table was more than enough to support the project.

Today, going into another town meeting season, hope has been replaced by frustration and anger, as the project is stalled and the prospect for fiber hangs by a thread. Many people feel MBI is "Making Broadband Impossible".

There's support for that viewpoint in a case study about WiredWest just published by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Lauding WiredWest's cooperative approach as "a new model for last-mile connectivity," the study concluded that MBI "delays approval and funding." The situation was exacerbated in late January when the Baker administration put the entire state last-mile program on "pause."

MBI objects to towns owning the network on a cooperative basis through WiredWest, although it's consistent with the regional plan, rather than each town owning its own network. Susan Crawford is a professor at Harvard Law School, co-director of the Berkman Center, and co-author of the report. In a blog she echoed its conclusion in saying that MBI should "defer to local self-determination" by "working with these towns on their chosen cooperative model rather than dismissing [it] out of hand."

Having participated in dozens of working sessions with MBI executives, I can only conclude that they see WiredWest as a threat to their control of the project. The towns are putting up almost two-thirds of the construction costs, and are entitled to meaningful oversight of how MBI spends their money. But MBI does not want the towns, organized through WiredWest, to have that power.

There's good reason to worry about how MBI, a public agency, spends money. There are five attorneys on the payroll at MBI and its parent organization, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Yet it's paying a Boston law firm $705 an hour, fees which have added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now the project faces many more months of delay as MBI prepares to conduct a study, at a cost of up to $500,000, on the feasibility of fixed wireless. A different technology than mobile wireless service for your phone, it requires a line-of-sight connection from a tower to your home or business, a problem in hilly and heavily-forested western Mass. It's never been widely deployed in terrain like ours, it's inferior to fiber, and it's not what townspeople approved funding for. The Berkman report concluded that fiber is a "better, long-term solution" than "the cheaper, short-term fix" of fixed wireless.

Make voices heard

WiredWest recently drafted a resolution for Select Boards to send to Gov. Baker. In essence, it urges that the pause be lifted, and that MBI be directed to work with WiredWest to develop a plan acceptable to the towns by June 30. Failing that, towns may have to ask the state to fund a private company rather than MBI to build the network for WiredWest.

What can you do? Some towns are putting a similar resolution on their town meeting warrant. Vote for it. WiredWest is launching an online petition to the governor. Sign it. Above all, don't give up. We've come too far and there's too much at stake to hang it up now.

Steve Nelson is delegate to WiredWest for the town of Washington.


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