Savoy, Florida in countdown to debut of wireless internet

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SAVOY — Two of the last Berkshire County towns creeping toward the digital age can almost see the finish line.

It's up there, high, atop a pole.

Savoy and Florida, in the county's northeast corner, are expected to sign onto a plan to receive wireless broadband internet service delivered from poles and towers around the region by a New Hampshire company.

For years, both towns had been listed as "Exploring Options" on a chart maintained by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. They lingered on that list in part because private cable TV companies weren't interested in serving sparsely settled communities.

But at long last, that exploration led both towns, along with nearby Hawley and Monroe in Franklin County, to opt for a wireless system that will be built by WiValley-MA Inc. Funding for the project comes through a combined $2.3 million grant from the institute, which has provided startup money for dozens of "unserved" towns in a long march toward digital equity.

All parties inked an "action plan" last month that spells out steps toward a final contract.

Unlike towns that opted to build and own municipal fiber-optic networks, the new system that will serve Savoy and Florida comes on the cheap to local taxpayers.

Cost to the towns: $0.

WiValley will own the new network and bill customers who purchase internet access through the company's partner, Otelco, a unit of CRC Communications.

This month, a new pole that will house equipment for the system is expected to rise near Chapel and Loop roads in Savoy, just north of Route 116.

Keith Kupiec is ready to salute. "They're going to make sure the first pole reaches my house," said Kupiec, a member of Savoy's Select Board who lives in the town's Bush neighborhood.

Both he and Russ Clark, a fellow board member, say they jumped at the chance to sign on.

"It's a no-brainer," said Clark. "I can't wait."

It's not crowded anywhere in Savoy, but the area where Kupiec lives on the north side of town is even less settled.

Small populations, and equally small potential customer bases, are a key reason wireless broadband emerged as the go-to option for the four towns. While there are 1,000 people per square mile in Pittsfield, home to commercial internet providers, Florida has just 23 people per square mile. The tally is not quite 19 in Savoy.

A wireless system will reach customers without having to lay cable or fiber, greatly reducing the startup cost.

Brian Foucher, who runs WiValley Inc. out of Keene, N.H., declined to comment on final steps toward the deal. "We are still in the process of finalizing things with the state," he said.

"They're moving forward," said Brian Noyes, spokesman for MBI and its parent, the Massachusetts Technology Corp.

The Eagle was not able to reach an official in Florida for comment on steps that community is taking as part of the four-town deal.

To help the regional project advance, MBI agreed to kick in extra money to pay for a new building that will house wireless network gear on Borden Mountain in Savoy. WiValley will be able to place equipment on an existing state Department of Conservation and Recreation tower on Borden Mountain.

The state also gave the four towns $116,000 to obtain technical and legal advice about the merits of a wireless solution.

The plan signed in January includes one apparent compromise. It calls for WiValley to provide internet connectivity of 25-megabits-per-second download, and 3-mbps upload — the Federal Communications Commission's broadband standard — for 75 percent of the customer base. But a portion of subscribers will not have access to those speeds, at least not yet. Those subscribers, based on the difficulty of connecting them through the wireless network, will be able to obtain download/upload speeds of 12/2 mbps.

WiValley's system must be able to reach 96 percent of the premises in the towns.

The plan calls for the towns to own the "vertical assets" of the network — the actual poles — but make them available to WiValley at no cost.

Final steps now, according to the MBI, are for the state and WiValley to reach agreement on a contract and for the four towns to negotiate their own network service plans with the company.

For Savoy, the first sign of progress will be the new pole off Chapel and Loop roads, near the town's elementary school. The system will use that location to connect with the "middle mile," formally known as the Massachusetts Broadband 123 network.

"Once that pole is up, they can serve 75 people in town," said John Tynan, chair of the Savoy Select Board.

Tynan said he expects WiValley to erect 10 to 12 poles in town as the wireless system is built out. He estimated that the cost of the slower connection speeds will be in the $45-a-month range. For another $24 a month, subscribers can obtain unlimited phone service, Tynan said.

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


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