Steve Nelson: Towns hold the key to broadband
WASHINGTON, MASS. >> Western Massachusetts is involved in three national issues concerning internet access: dramatically increasing connection speeds with broadband fiber-optic networks; having municipalities deploy those networks; and extending broadband service throughout rural America.
The U.S. badly trails other countries in the speed and cost of broadband. The New York Times recently reported that in many cities in Europe and Asia users can download a high-definition movie in about seven seconds, paying as little as $30 a month for their connection. But in New York and Los Angeles, that download takes about 12 times as long from the fastest available service, at 10 times the cost.
Unsatisfied with their service from big providers like Comcast and Verizon, many municipalities are looking to build their own fiber networks to compete with them. However, laws in 20 states impede cities and towns from providing broadband to their citizens. In a controversial move, the Federal Communications Commission is considering preempting such restrictions.
In many rural areas, the issue is not lack of competition, but no broadband service at all. The big companies have bypassed many small towns. Here in Berkshire County, 16 towns have no cable service; another three are served by an antiquated Charter cable system offering TV but no Internet.
At last, significant progress is being made to solve this problem. 44 towns in Berkshire and adjacent counties formed a municipal cooperative, WiredWest, to deploy a regional fiber network.
Earlier this year the Massachusetts Broadband Institute completed a "middle mile" network connecting town halls and other public facilities. To extend the "last mile" to homes and businesses, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill in August authorizing bonds to provide $50 million to MBI for that purpose. In September Senate Majority Leader Stanley Rosenberg held a meeting in his office with the Western Mass. legislative delegation, WiredWest, MBI and other involved parties. Everyone agreed that WiredWest and MBI should work together to implement a regional last-mile network.
Since then WiredWest, MBI and engineering, financial and legal experts have been working diligently on a last-mile plan. They are now holding meetings with town Select Board and Finance Committee members to discuss that plan, and seek their input and participation. It provides that MBI will build the network, and WiredWest will own and operate it on behalf of the towns.
To participate in the last-mile project, a town must take these steps:
1. By Dec. 31, its Select Board must pass a nonbinding resolution expressing the town's intent to participate;
2. As early as next spring at a town meeting, it must authorize the issuance of bonds to cover the town's share of construction costs above the funds contributed by MBI;
3. At the same time, 40 percent of households in a town must sign a conditional contract to take service — Internet, phone and/or TV — when it becomes available.
That qualifies it as a "Fiber Town" on the network.
WiredWest and MBI will work closely with towns to help them complete these steps. If all eligible towns participate, their total share of construction costs is estimated to be $60 million or more. Towns will be on the hook for the bonds they issue, but according to the plan, WiredWest anticipates reimbursing them in whole or part for their debt service payments.
While there are risks in moving forward, for a town not to act is to risk being left behind with poor internet service, perhaps for many years, with serious consequences for its economic well-being and quality of life.
Providing broadband in our small towns is no easy task. The key to success is doing it on a regional basis, to benefit from economies of scale, share the challenges, retain professional management and deliver excellent customer service. For a town to try building and operating its own fiber network on such a small scale would be far riskier. With towns joining together to help finance a regional fiber network owned and operated by their cooperative WiredWest, Western Massachusetts will become a national leader in "bringing broadband home" to people in rural areas.
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