Steve Nelson: Looking back, forward with WiredWest
WASHINGTON, MA. >> On August 13, 2011, representatives of 22 small towns in Western Massachusetts signed an agreement forming a cooperative called WiredWest. Its mission: to remedy the lack of broadband service undermining economic development, education and the quality of life in the region.
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute was then in the process of building, with state and federal money, a "middle mile" fiber-optic network to connect town halls and other public facilities in 123 central and western Mass. communities. But the terms of the federal grant forbad MBI to build the "last mile" connection to homes and businesses.
That became the focus of WiredWest. To create the co-op, each town first had to establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), an entity created under Massachusetts law a century ago to enable small towns to provide electricity to their citizens, who were not being served by General Electric and Westinghouse, which sold electric power in those days before public utilities.
The MLPs then formed the WiredWest MLP cooperative, as authorized by the Electric Restructuring Act of 1997, developed by a commission chaired by then-Pittsfield State Representative Peter Larkin. The services MLP co-ops could provide were expanded beyond electricity to include cable TV and telecommunications.
From the beginning, WiredWest was conceived as a regional initiative. Its bylaws provided that participating towns would "have a role in governance and oversight of the organization to ensure policies represent the best interests of our communities and our region."
Lack of funding delayed progress until August 2014, when a state bond bill authorized $50 million for last-mile broadband. That fall, in public meetings for town officials, MBI and WiredWest presented a plan for MBI to use the state money, along with substantial funding from the towns, to build a regional fiber network which WiredWest would own and operate.
At town meetings in the spring of 2015, 24 towns overwhelmingly passed warrant articles authorizing them to borrow their share to build and launch the network, about two-thirds of the total funding under the MBI-WiredWest plan. In 16 of those towns, the article required its MLP to act as a member of an MLP coop, presumably WiredWest.
But in December 2015, the former director of MBI objected to WiredWest's financial model and operating structure, bringing progress to a halt. In January Gov. Baker put the last-mile program on "pause" to reevaluate it. In May he named ex-state Rep. Peter Larkin to chair the MBI Board of Directors, reporting to Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, and with a mandate to get the job done.
A revised model
In the meantime, WiredWest had worked with MBI to revise its financial model. The WiredWest Board of Directors unanimously approved replacing its proposed operating structure, "Plan A," with "Plan A2," to meet a requirement adopted by MBI in July 2015 that each town must own the network infrastructure within its borders. Under Plan A2 these mini-muni-networks would plug into a central "ring" owned by WiredWest and thereby function as a regional network. MBI has not yet responded to A2, under which WiredWest would oversee network operations and provision of services.
Towns are currently working constructively with MBI in a process to qualify for funding, which requires them to choose a "preferred project model." Concerned that their funding might be jeopardized if they indicated an intent to work with WiredWest, several towns have preliminarily chosen the "Independent Municipal Network" model, although with a provision that "an option may be available to join a regional model in the future."
The question remains unanswered as to whether and how to regionalize broadband. Yet just this week, regional solutions for local problems became the official policy of the commonwealth when Gov. Baker signed the Municipal Modernization Act, giving local governments better tools to handle their operations and finances.
Section 240 requires that "each secretary of an executive office shall evaluate all grant, loan, and technical assistance programs administered under their office for opportunities to promote, facilitate and implement inter-municipal cooperation, collaboration, and regional service delivery at the local level."
Section 241 says that "any executive agency that administers a program through which funding may be provided to municipalities, where regionalization may be feasible, shall encourage municipal efficiencies by prioritizing those applications for funds which come from municipalities that have developed a method by which to jointly and more efficiently utilize such funding" (underlining added).
An MLP coop like WiredWest makes regionalization of broadband service "feasible," and Plan A2 is a "method" that enables towns to work together to better utilize last-mile funding.
Towns should reaffirm the regional vision which led them to form WiredWest five years ago. Regionalization is not only state policy and to be given funding priority, it is the only cost-efficient, affordable and sustainable solution for bringing broadband to their citizens.
Steve Nelson is delegate to WiredWest for the town of Washington.
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