Otis drops out of Wired West; will pursue own broadband service

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OTIS — When it comes to delivering on residents' demand for broadband service, Otis has decided to go it alone.

The Board of Selectmen — backed by the town's Technology and Finance committees — recently voted to withdraw from WiredWest, a cooperative of 44 rural Western Massachusetts towns aiming to bring high-speed Internet to their communities.

Instead, Otis will seek to develop and deliver its own broadband network.

"If the town has to kick-in $3.7 million we should own the asset," said Town Administrator Chris Morris.

The town will receive $1.8 million from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the state agency established to foster the design and construction of fiber-optic networks to communities that have yet to receive high-speed Internet service. The total cost of the Otis project is estimated at about $5.5 million.

WiredWest has qualified for $40 million in state funding to be divvied up among member towns, 23 of which have approved funding to remain with the cooperative, with several more special town meeting votes scheduled for the fall, according to the organization's website.

But Otis officials balked at the prospect that WiredWest would own and control the network and farm out the Internet provider services. And they want the flexibility deciding who runs the system.

"It will be a more competitive process if we hire our own network operators and if we have a problem with them, we can put the service back out to bid," said Larry Gould, a member of the town's Technology Committee.

WiredWest has criticized Otis officials for their decision, appealing to the hundreds of home- and business owners who pre-subscribed to WiredWest.

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"While a town has every right to choose the course it takes, we believe that this decision will increase the cost of bringing fiber to Otis as well as the risks the town will face by going it alone," according to an email statement sent to those pre-subscribers. "Nor does it necessarily reflect the views or interests of the people of Otis, and in particular those of you in about 425 households who so far have signed up for service from WiredWest."

The sign-up fee of $49 is refundable, upon request, WiredWest and Otis officials said.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has direct oversight regarding the system that will be developed for WiredWest communities, but it will work closely with municipalities who decide a different route, according to agency director Eric Nakajima,

"The MBI will continue to provide financial and technical assistance so that [Otis] can develop a broadband network which meets the MBI's criteria to access the state funds allocated to them," he said in a prepared statement. "This means developing a project that is technically sound and financially sustainable from a business perspective."

Before that can happen, Otis voters must authorize funding for the broadband project, first at a special town meeting likely to be scheduled in early October followed by a special election to exempt the cost from Proposition 2 1/2. The second vote expected in early November.

Town officials haven't decided who will build the broadband network or provide the Internet service, but they are shopping for the right firms, according to Selectmen Chairwoman Roberta Sarnacki.

"We're talking with several different companies," she said. "We've talked with the people from Leverett who own their system and we're getting more proposals from other companies."

Three years ago, the Franklin County town of Leverett voted to establish its own broadband network, which was expected to be completed and operational this summer, according to the town's Broadband Committee.

"There are currently more than 600 subscribers to LeverettNet [amounting] to 70 percent of all potential subscribers," the committee posted on the town's website. "Pre-subscription experience for other networks in the United States rarely reaches this level, which points to the exceptional value of LeverettNet as well as a measure of the needs it will fulfill."

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233.


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