With broadband internet increasingly becoming vital to economic and social wellbeing, areas of western Massachusetts remain without robust access. In the meantime, the state agency tasked with making the connections has undergone leadership changes and the regional cooperative committed to the cause has released a new plan.
After finding themselves at odds over a fiber network plan for roughly 40 towns, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and WiredWest are taking steps to get back on track. Private companies haven’t seen the scattered population across the hilly terrain of the Berkshires as profitable enough to build their own network, so people use libraries and town halls for speedy internet access. WiredWest, a cooperative of underserved communities, recently released a new plan in which it would manage a regional fiber network. In December, MBI sent a letter to town leaders recommending they not sign onto the earlier plan. The agency expressed concern that towns would be locked into the agreement therefore restricting their flexibility when addressing financial or other future issues. The agency said it would not authorize any of the $40 million it controls, one-third of the previously estimated project cost, for a plan with the core principals as proposed. WiredWest spokesman Tim Newman says the new proposal involves three fundamental changes.
“In the original WiredWest plan, the towns were going to transfer ownership to the cooperative,” Newman said. “In the current plan, the towns retain the ownership of virtually all of the assets within their borders with one exception. That is that in order to create a network there has to be an interconnection between the towns. So there would be, think of it as a ring, that would connect all the towns and in each of the towns there would be an interface between the town network and the ring. So the interface, which is a small piece of electronics and the connection to the fiber that connects the towns would be owned by the cooperative.”
Under the plan, communities could withdraw from the network and operate as a standalone, like the town of Leverett is doing, after the network operates for five years. Also, WiredWest will manage the network, but services such as network operations, ISP services, technical support, maintenance and billing will be done by private sector, third-party companies.
In May, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration announced a leadership change for MBI’s so-called Last Mile broadband effort. Former Pittsfield state Rep. Peter Larkin has come on board as a special advisor to oversee planning and strategy. MBI Director Eric Nakajima resigned in February. Newman says the next step is for WiredWest to meet with Larkin and what he calls a new “invigorated and aggressive” leadership team. Larkin says MBI is working to gauge which towns are ready for a multitude of models and technologies to deliver service that the agency has outlined.
“We do see that there are some opportunities for towns to jointly work together,” Larkin said. “That being said we’re offering models to consider and we laid them out there for their understanding. For example, we have expansion by a private provider, extension of existing cable infrastructure, the multi municipal network piece, independent municipal networks – there are some towns that are ready to go – and then we have pilot projects that we understand are out there and that towns want to go forward on and we’re considering them.”
Newman says beyond paying for the infrastructure the effort needs to be done regionally to be sustainable.
“Our towns are by and large small,” Newman said. “The smaller towns, some of them have already authorized the debt and they feel they can handle that, but they don’t have enough households in their towns to support the service on their own. So one of the things that WiredWest has been advocating from the beginning is that this really has to be done regionally. It can’t be done successfully on a town by town basis. So I think that’s going to be an important part of the discussion with MBI.”
MBI hopes to complete its town readiness evaluations by September. Newman says WiredWest is open to other plans and changes to its new proposal. Larkin says MBI has taken a quick look at the cooperative’s new plan.
“Some of their considerations were a recognition that the MBI’s concerns about their take rates, subscription fees and the financial underpinnings are some of the same concerns MBI has been raising for the last four to five months,” Larkin said. “To that end we hope to meet with the leadership of WiredWest and we look forward to a very frank and honest dialogue. Hopefully we can all move forward because at the end of the day we have the same intentions as they have which is to bring broadband services to the communities underserved in Massachusetts.”