Fiber-optic era about to spring on Windsor

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WINDSOR — For years, the answer was a bleak "someday, maybe."

The question in Windsor, and other Berkshires towns, was whether a tool of modern life taken for granted by most would ever make it here.

This Saturday, townspeople get a new answer. When they gather for an update, they'll hear that construction of a $2.3 million municipally owned fiber-optic network starts in February. And by April or May, initial broadband customers will connect to the internet at some of the fastest speeds available in Western Massachusetts.

More than a decade after former Gov. Deval Patrick pledged to close the digital divide, Windsor is near the front of the pack of towns building broadband networks — with significant financial help from the state, an assist from the federal government and residents' own willingness to pay more in taxes.

Doug McNally, the Select Board member leading the effort, says that despite setbacks and challenges, Windsor is poised to join Mount Washington and Otis in lighting up a town-owned network. A dozen Berkshire communities aren't far behind.

Residents can sign up for service at Saturday's forum, which starts at 9 a.m. in Town Hall, or any time online in coming months. McNally said the morning's presentation will explain the status of the project and offer pointed help on how to subscribe.

The network will offer both data and voice connectivity.

"It's something a lot of people in the Hilltowns just don't know how to do," he said.

Life in the digital dark means many residents need to catch up on practices like streaming content. "People don't understand what the options mean," McNally said.

The event will include remarks by McNally and a representative of WiredWest as well as guidance from Whip City Fiber, the Westfield Gas & Electric unit coordinating the network's construction. The actual builder is TriWire Engineering Solutions.

In the last four years, the state provided more than $32 million to address the lack of broadband internet service in 42 communities. Of that sum, more than $20 million was channeled to towns like Windsor creating their own fiber networks.

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The town is also getting a share of a federal grant that will provide $840,000 toward the network's costs over the next 10 years.

Even with all that outside funding, local taxpayers will pay a share.

Today, a key financial question for the Windsor project concerns the cost of getting service from the network to homes, the final link known as a "drop." With help from an additional state grant and the town's own resources — $300,000 tapped from a stabilization fund — the first $2,000 in the cost of a drop will be covered.

McNally expects that 85 percent of Windsor subscribers will not have to pay personally to have drops reach their homes. Gov. Charlie Baker approved reimbursing Windsor $750 for each drop, lessening the expense for the town and its new network's customers.

The state came through not only with a grant to Windsor to build its network, but kicked in money to cover overruns in the cost of "make ready" work.

Though plans originally called for make ready to cost $425,000, the expense has more than doubled to about $875,000, according to McNally.

In "make ready," utility crews prepare poles to receive fiber in what's known as the telecom zone, which shares the poles with electrical and phone lines.

As of this week, Verizon was still finishing make-ready work in Windsor after missing a Dec. 14 deadline due in part to rough weather, McNally said.

"They're a little late but not egregiously late," he said.

The town's west side will be the first to receive service this spring. The area includes parts of Route 9, North Street and Peru and Flintstone roads.

Getting new customers up and running —and paying — is part of the debut's financial picture, McNally said."That starts covering some costs."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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