WiredWest retools to advance last-mile broadband plans

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Over the next year, small towns across the region will build their own fiber-optic networks, after demanding the right to decide their digital futures.

Standing in the wings is a familiar champion of that cause.

It's been a long wait, but WiredWest remains ready to help run new networks, though not as it first imagined, when the nonprofit collaborative helped expose Western Massachusetts' digital divide at the start of this decade.

Today, instead of owning and operating a single interlinked regional network, WiredWest wants to help towns manage their own.

For a time, it appeared WiredWest would itself control a sprawling fiber system, serving as many as two dozen towns, including many in Berkshire County.

That plan collapsed in December 2015 after the Massachusetts Broadband Institute raised legal questions about the collaborative's plan to own the network.

The nonprofit's pitch is far more modest now. It is offering to provide a range of business services to towns, allowing communities with scant personnel to outsource management headaches, trim costs and perhaps gain added reliability by linking their networks.

Towns are expected to decide soon whether to sign on with WiredWest and begin a joint marketing push in advance of local network debuts in 2019 and 2020.

Fifteen towns to date have signed a memorandum of understanding with WiredWest, including Becket, New Ashford, Washington and Windsor.

Doug McNally, a Select Board member in Windsor and WiredWest representative, plans to brief residents in December about how the town's network can be managed.

One choice remains WiredWest. "It's going to significantly reduce the operational oversight required by the town," McNally said of that option.

The board of WiredWest recently approved language for the contract towns would sign. The group has lined up Westfield Gas & Electric to serve as the internet service provider for clients. The Westfield utility is also the outfit most towns have hired to construct networks.

Jim Drawe, formerly chairman of the WiredWest board, has been named executive director of the group, at a $15,000-a-year part-time salary.

For Drawe, who helped steer the group through crisis in 2015 and 2016, it always made sense for small towns to find strength together — and not leave the many chores of actually managing a network to communities where officials, most of them volunteers, have limited expertise and time.

"It makes sense to have an organization that takes care of all those things," he said in an interview at the Old Creamery Co-op grocery in Cummington, his home town.

Drawe says, only half joking it appears, that he's ready to move forward if just two towns sign up.

Dave Dvore, of Rowe, a longtime WiredWest member, said he depends on the 8-year-old group's hard-earned expertise.

"Together we have a reservoir of talent that no individual town has. I feel confident going forward with a group like that," Dvore said.

In contrast to its business plan in 2015, WiredWest is now lean and mean. Drawe will run WiredWest from his home office.

"We just believed in the concept," he said, speaking of regional collaboration. "That you can serve the customers of each town better if you had economies of scale. It's that simple."

WiredWest is poised to handle all business functions related to new networks, from accounting and billing to mustering out repair crews for maintenance in rough weather. The package of services includes paying for ongoing pole licensing fees, insurance, audits and legal services.

"They don't have to hire their own people," Drawe said of client towns. "At the end of the year we provide them with a report."

Depending on how well the new networks are embraced by subscribers in their own towns, those annual reports could come with a financial rebate to communities.

Drawe counts nine or 10 towns as likely to opt for help from WiredWest, with another five on the fence. To be conservative, WiredWest's model allows it to more than cover costs even if only half of potential subscribers take service.

One point that's debated is how much to charge. Drawe says WiredWest takes seriously the results of a $20,000 marketing study it hired a company to conduct.

That survey found that prospective customers are sensitive to prices. To respect that, the WiredWest plan calls for two retail plans, one at $59 a month for download speeds of 25 megabits per second, about 10 times the speed of what's available on Verizon's limited DSL service. Adding phone service would increase the monthly cost by $19.

WiredWest calculates that the total would still be lower than what most people who can get it now pay for DSL as well as landline phone service.

For $75 a month, subscribers would get 1 gigabit per second speeds.

WiredWest's board is still exploring use of a subsidized rate. It plans to negotiate individually with business customers.

All new customers would also pay a $99 one-time activation fee. Drawe said those payments will provide working capital for WiredWest, providing a needed buffer. The insurance coverage the group intends to use, the same policy covering similar networks around the state, comes with a $10,000 deductible.

Plan evolved

In January 2017, WiredWest outlined its new stance to member towns, in a session at the middle school in Northampton.

"We don't own the infrastructure. The towns own the infrastructure," Drawe said, drawing a distinction between his group's past and present business plan. "That's the only difference."

Since then, a lot has changed for the towns identified by the state as unserved. Leaders of town broadband committees, many of them members of WiredWest, lobbied for the state to free up funding so towns could move ahead on their own.

Other communities decided to avoid placing any burden on local taxpayers by signing up with legacy cable TV companies. State grants helped persuade those firms to serve more rural parts of towns like Hinsdale, West Stockbridge and Lanesborough.

The Baker administration loosened the purse strings in the spring of 2017 and continues to support both public and private last-mile connections. The state has added money here and there to help individual towns move projects ahead.

Bill Ennen, the last-mile liaison for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, ranges around the area, helping towns overcome problems, including stubborn delays in "make ready" work on utility poles.

Drawe knows firsthand how time-consuming the work can become.

The WiredWest goals have for years been advanced by many of the same people who sit on their own broadband panels, or now, their own municipal light plants — state law's term for the entities that will oversee new networks.

"They're the ones leading the charge to get their towns up and running," Drawe said. "A tremendous amount of volunteer work has gone into that."

In Windsor, McNally said small towns need to take stock of whether they have the personnel to handle a network's many business needs beyond what the internet service provider covers.

"Our governmental infrastructure is tiny," McNally said. "The idea that we are going to own an asset and be in a position of running a business with that lack of oversight is concerning."

Dvore, the WiredWest member for Rowe, says he believes the group will be able to win better deals for towns, share the risks of running networks and provide other advantages — including taking pressure of small-town volunteers. Rowe's network could light up by March.

"I've put in a tremendous amount of time on this, but I don't want a career out of it," Dvore said. "Once it's operating I more or less want it to operate on its own."

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


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