MONTEREY — The WiredWest initiative to extend broadband service throughout rural towns in Western Massachusetts is surging this town meeting season with a near perfect record of approvals from local voters.
Residents in 16 of the 17 towns that have been asked to authorize borrowing for their community's share of the costs for the massive project have approved the funding — often by overwhelming margins. And Berkshire County towns have been in the forefront, with half of the 16 towns that have approved bonding authorizations located here.
"Ultimately, the overwhelming votes so far are a resounding affirmation that the citizens, businesses and institutions of Western Mass. towns underserved by broadband are ready, willing and eager to move forward with the WiredWest regional fiber network," said Monica Webb of Monterey, chairwoman of the board of directors of the WiredWest Communications Cooperative, which formed in 2010 to address the lack of broadband service in many small towns.
In all, 45 towns in the five central and western counties in Massachusetts are considered eligible to participate and for state funding because they are underserved by existing broadband networks. Among those towns, the select boards in 33 have committed to placing a bond authorization proposal before voters for a pre-determined town share of the cost. Voting on those authorizations began at town meetings this spring.
The town of Montgomery in Hampden County voted down its share of the project by just two votes, Webb said, adding that supporters there are eager for another chance to vote. The rest of those voting approved bonding for their town's estimated share, typically more than $1 million.
According to Webb, the 16 towns voting in favor thus far have approved a total of $26 million toward the network construction and start-up costs. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is working with WiredWest and will oversee construction of the new network, and a total of $40 million in state funding is available for broadband expansion in the designated underserved towns.
The MBI previously used $90 million in state and federal funds to extended broadband service into the centers of 123 small Massachusetts communities — usually connecting to municipal buildings, schools and libraries.
Because commercial firms have failed to extend that network out further into most small towns, apparently because there are too few customers per mile to meet company revenue goals, the WiredWest organization is stepping in to expand the fiber network.
WiredWest has representatives from all the participating towns and an executive board to handle day-to-day decisions. In operating the new network, it is expected to contract with one or more companies for technical or other services.
The approval votes by towns trigger the release of a specific amount of state funding toward broadband expansion there. Thus far, a total of $14 million in state funds will be released because of the town approvals to bond for a total of more than $26 million.
At least two other towns will vote soon — New Salem on June 1, and Peru on June 6 — and the towns of Hinsdale, New Marlborough and Otis are expected to vote in late summer or fall, while Tyringham is expected to vote during the winter or spring of 2016.
To ensure financial sustainability of the network, each of the towns also must have at least 40 percent of premises signed up as pre-subscribers for the network Internet, cable or telephone services, and Webb said nine of the 16 approving towns have reached that level with four others within 10 subscribers of the goal.
In total, WiredWest has more than 6,000 premises in the towns pre-subscribed for services, which requires a $49 refundable deposit toward the first month's bill for services.
"As the town meeting process is underway, the MBI is committed to working with each municipality on their selected project and strategy for investing in broadband solutions," said MBI director Eric Nakajima in a statement. "There is no penalty if a town decides to delay voting this season, as funds allocated to a specific town will be held through two town meeting cycles, roughly late 2016."
Nakajima added, "The [vote] outcomes are a testament to the work of broadband advocates in the towns as well as WiredWest. It's clear that voters understand the impact that high-speed Internet can have on education and economic development in their towns."
"At this point, we have enough critical mass to move forward with the planning work required (engineering, utility pole permitting)," Webb said last week. "That work will be done in partnership with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. WiredWest is currently meeting weekly with MBI on these and other critical network planning issues."
Requests for proposals for project management and engineering services are expected to be issued in late summer or early fall, and construction bids are expected by spring 2016.
Webb and others have said expansion of fiber networks for broadband services was considered the best technological option in terms of capacity and longevity. Current service in the rural towns often comes over telephone lines or via satellite, she said, but for the foreseeable expansion of the fiber network is seen as the best infrastructure option.
She said arguments in favor of making the financial commitment include the limited economic expansion potential for those small towns left without broadband. That lack is seen as contributing to population decline in rural areas, especially among the young.
APPROVED BERKSHIRE SPENDING
Becket: $3.75 million
Egremont: $1.87 million
Monterey: $1.96 million
Sandisfield: $2.38 million
West Stockbridge: $1.83 million
Windsor: $1.32 million
Planning to vote by spring 2016: Peru, Hinsdale, Otis, New Marlborough, Tyringham
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.