Steve Nelson: Opportunity to reboot regional broadband project

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WASHINGTON, MA. >> The resignation last week of Eric Nakajima as director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute provides an opportunity for MBI and WiredWest to reboot the stalled last-mile broadband project in Western Mass. This will require both parties to negotiate in good faith toward a solution which meets the needs of the towns and their citizens.

The current impasse between MBI and WiredWest came into sharp focus on Dec. 1 of last year when Nakajima announced in a letter to town officials that MBI was withholding funding from WiredWest because of problems with WiredWest's financial model and with its proposed Operating Agreement, through which towns would share ownership of a regional fiber-optic network.

Nakajima scheduled two public meetings to present MBI's rationale for the letter, and allow a rebuttal by WiredWest. WiredWest warned MBI that the room for the first meeting was too small, and an uproar ensued when a hundred or so town officials and broadband supporters were kept out. The second meeting was postponed and has not been rescheduled.

RFP now shelved

Soon after, Nakajima approved issuing a Request For Proposals to hire an engineering firm to design the network. A summary of the draft RFP was made public on Christmas Eve, with towns given until Jan. 15 to provide feedback to MBI. Faced with criticism of the schedule, since Select Boards do not normally meet during the holidays, Nakajima extended the deadline for two weeks. The RFP has since been shelved.

For its part, in December WiredWest appointed a negotiating team to resolve differences with MBI over the financial model and Operating Agreement. Through several constructive in-depth work sessions with MBI's finance staff, WiredWest has revised its model essentially to MBI's satisfaction.

The issue of ownership, however, remains unresolved. The MBI policy advocated by Nakajima requires that network infrastructure located within a town must be owned by that town. But many towns have made it clear that they do not want to own the infrastructure individually, but rather to own it together through WiredWest.

A year ago the Baker-Polito administration publicly expressed support for the last-mile initiative. It is now engaged in a close review of the project and has put it on "pause". One of its major concerns is the financial burden the project will place on our small towns. Indeed, this is an issue everyone must take very seriously.

At town meetings last spring, 24 towns overwhelmingly approved borrowing a total of $38 million for the project, to be matched with $22 million from MBI. They understand that there are risks, and most see shared ownership as the best way of reducing those risks. They also understand only too well that not having broadband is a threat to their economic well-being and quality of life.

Faced with declining and aging populations, and increasing costs of operations, many towns are actively exploring how they might share the provision of town services. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli has been a forceful advocate for regionalization. The Baker-Polito "Community Compact" initiative is an important and innovative impetus toward that end. A regional broadband network, owned together by towns through their WiredWest cooperative, should be part of the solution.

Assure towns choice

How to bring broadband to towns must be approved by those towns, which are providing about two-thirds of the funding. A few towns, like Otis and Mount Washington, have decided that they want to own a standalone network and not be part of WiredWest. Provided that they can demonstrate to MBI the financial viability of a single-town network, that is their choice.

A few towns, like Middlefield, faced with the cost of constructing a fiber network in their town, are considering fixed wireless instead. Unlike the mobile wireless your phone uses, this involves numerous antennas around town which deliver Internet connectivity to small rooftop antennas. Because it requires line-of-sight to work, this technology has problems in hilly and leafy terrain. It also delivers lower speeds and is less future-proof than fiber. But provided that those towns can demonstrate to MBI the financial viability of fixed wireless, that is their choice.

Most towns, however, want shared ownership of a regional fiber network through WiredWest. Having now demonstrated to MBI the financial viability of the network, that is their choice.

The writer is Legal/Governance Chair of WiredWest. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of WiredWest.


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