Crux decisions ahead for Windsor broadband project
By Larry Parnass
The Berkshire Eagle
WINDSOR — A flurry of activity will soon bring Windsor within striking distance of creating the town's most valuable capital asset — its own fiber-optic broadband network.
Residents years ago embraced Windsor's decision to provide high-speed internet service to every address in town.
Come January, that "last mile" solution gets down to last yards — one of two key questions remaining.
Select Board member Doug McNally, who leads Windsor's broadband drive, told residents this week he will soon propose a "drop" policy on how the town will cover the cost of extending cable from curbs into homes and businesses. A "drop" refers to that final run of fiber to a customer. The issue will be brought to a special town meeting vote, perhaps in January.
The town also will soon decide which entity will provide internet service to customers of the network, McNally told residents at an informational session in Town Hall.
Already checked off is the question of who will string fiber and how the town will connect to the internet.
McNally recently signed a $625,000 contract with a low bidder, TriWire Engineering Solutions, to install the distribution system. And the town has arranged to install a prefabricated "hut" near the town offices that will house electronics for the system and connect with a wholesale supplier of internet bandwidth.
If all goes as planned, installation of the network will be complete by the end of September, with customers connected by the end of 2019.
Residents should expect to get calls early this spring asking them to sign up for service.
McNally said he prefers a "drop" policy that results in connecting as many premises in Windsor as possible. The cost of reaching homes from the network will vary, depending on distance and terrain conditions.
It could cost hundreds of dollars for one address, or several thousand. Either way, the town should step up for the benefit of all, McNally argued.
"We need to make fiber-optic [service] available to every home," he said.
While that policy will increase the town's initial installation costs, it will help assure a wider customer base for new service — known as the "take rate" — and lead to increased revenue that will support the system, he noted.
Meantime, the project is coming off a string of favorable financial developments.
One was the low bid TriWire offered, which came in $215,000 below the high bid. Another was a decision by Eversource to replace 40 utility poles along Route 9, from Route 8A east to the town's trash transfer station.
The utility contacted the town about upgrading the poles, including increasing their height by 15 feet, unaware that the community was poised to seek approval to place fiber on the same line. Local officials agreed, provided that they could use space on the poles for the new fiber without being assessed "make ready" fees.
McNally estimates that Eversource's project saves the town as much as $160,000.
"We fell into a bed of clover on that one," McNally said of the utility's move. "We're in very good shape."
On top of those financial wins, the town is expected, as The Eagle has reported, to receive $87,000 a year in Federal Communications Commission funding for a full decade.
McNally explained that the money won't be available until the end of 2021, however. That will compel the town to seek short-term loans that can be paid off when the federal dollars arrive.
When it comes to running its new system, Windsor has two options, McNally said.
One is to hire Westfield Gas & Electric to provide internet service, but retain the responsibility of managing its own broadband business.
The other is to contract with WiredWest to provide internet service provider services and oversee all operations — an option McNally appeared to favor in his presentation, though no decision has been made.
He said that choice needs to be made soon, ideally before TriWire begins construction of the network this coming spring.
Jim Drawe of Cummington, executive director of WiredWest, told residents in Town Hall how his group, a collaborative representing municipally owned networks, will operate.
Drawe said WiredWest holds a contract with the Westfield utility to provide ISP services. It has hired an auditor and is recruiting an accounting company, as it pushes to be ready when the next municipally owned network comes online.
The outfit's sales pitch to towns like Windsor: Let us handle the management headaches, since small towns don't have the staff to run a business with as many moving parts as broadband service.
McNally appears to be receptive. In a November interview, he noted the small size of town government. "The idea that we are going to own an asset and be in a position of running a business with that lack of oversight is concerning," he said.
WiredWest would offer two retail plans, one at $59 a month for download speeds of 25 megabits per second, the FCC's broadband minimum. For $75 a month, subscribers would get 1 gigabit-per-second speeds. Adding phone service would increase the monthly cost by $19.
All new customers would also pay a $99 activation fee.
Like McNally, Drawe emphasized the importance of helping customers who live up long driveways get over the hurdle of high connection costs.
"It should be an equal service for everybody," Drawe said.
He said proceeds from the new network that exceed operating costs would be returned to the cooperative's members.
Separately, McNally underscored that the enterprise is all about serving the public."There is no private sector profit in this model anywhere," he said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.