Savoy, Florida back wireless route to last-mile internet

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SAVOY — Two Berkshires communities bringing up the rear on last-mile internet access have picked a business partner — one that would not cost local taxpayers a dime.

Now, Florida and Savoy just need a proposed wireless system to win approval from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

WiValley of Keene, N.H., filed a revised proposal late last week to bring internet and phone service to the two Berkshires towns, along with Hawley and Monroe in western Franklin County.

Brian Noyes, a spokesman for MBI, said Monday the institute is reviewing the new proposal.

One issue that may arise is the speed that WiValley can deliver with a wireless system over wooded and hilly terrain.

The MBI has required last-mile vendors to provide what the Federal Communications Commission defines as broadband download and upload speeds. Those are 25 megabits per second (Mbps) to the connected premises and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

To overcome line-of-sight issues and the presence of trees and foliage, both of which hinder wireless connections, WiValley proposes to use different frequencies, including what's known as "TV white space."

While it says it can get 25/3 service to 75 percent of customers in the four towns, available speeds would drop to 12/2 for nearly a quarter of prospective customers, according to the WiValley proposal.

Whether MBI will endorse that plan hangs on the review still underway, Noyes said.

Nonetheless, residents of the four towns have continued to favor the WiValley plan. Speeds of 12/2 are roughly four times the peak connectivity provided by DSL service. That phone line technology, once hailed as a breakthrough for rural areas, is no longer available to new customers.

In a statement posted to their town's website, Hawley officials said WiValley's tweaked proposal "emerged as the clear and undisputed leader in the race to become vendor-of-choice for the four, contiguous towns that are looking to use MBI funding to build a fixed-wireless, high-speed network."

John Tynan, chairman of the Savoy Select Board, has said for months he believes WiValley offers the best solution for his community — in part because of low costs.

Since filing an earlier plan to the MBI in November, WiValley found a way to reduce upfront costs to the four towns.

It now proposes to work with Otelco Inc., a publicly traded telecommunications company based in Alabama that specializes in rural areas and has a longtime presence in New England.

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Under the revised plan, Otelco would cover construction costs until the state steps in with grant payments already promised to the towns, worth in total about $2 million.

Leaders of the four towns backed the plan June 7 during a meeting at the Florida Town Hall.

At that session, Brian Foucher, WiValley's president, explained the new arrangement with Otelco. Along with providing the initial financing, Otelco would serve as the internet service provider.

Foucher could not be reached Monday for further comment.

In that role, Otelco would handle billing and customer service, using an existing system that serves customers elsewhere in New England, including the town of Leverett, through its OTT Communications unit.

For its part, WiValley would design, build and maintain the wireless system, which provides internet access through radio frequencies rather than a fiber-optic or coaxial cable. Signals are relayed through repeaters stationed throughout the covered area.

The company has been in business since 2008 and provides telecom services to 50 communities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

In a 10-page, single-spaced proposal to the MBI last week, WiValley details plans to get work started this summer, provided its offer is accepted in July.

The company says it would move swiftly to erect needed poles. It seeks to use an existing state Department of Conservation and Recreation fire tower on Borden Mountain in Savoy.

It would erect a 90-foot fiberglass monopole on town land off Chapel Road in Savoy.

For the rest of the network, WiValley would put up roughly 30 wooden utility poles, at heights of 42 to 68 feet, the proposal says.

For Savoy and Florida, WiValley says it expects to reach more than 98 percent of premises.

The monthly cost for the 25/3 service is listed at $55; the 12/2 service is $45. Digital phone service would add $25 in costs.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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