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Western Mass. Towns To Set Their Own Internet Fate

Massachusetts Broadband Institute

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has reached an agreement with western Massachusetts partners to form a strategy for the final expansion of the commonwealth’s internet venture.

The so-called Middle Mile of the MassBroadband123 initiative went live in January, bringing fiber-optic broadband internet to anchor institutions like schools, police stations and town halls in more than 120 communities. And to complete the Last Mile, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute is joining forces with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and Wired West, a group representing more than 40 underserved communities, according to State Senator Ben Downing.

“We believe that working together with those partners we can present the options before the communities, let them know what the cost is and what they need to do to be able to take advantage of the opportunity and then get direct guidance from them on where we go from there,” said Downing.

State lawmakers approved $50 million for the Last Mile as part of an information technology bond bill in July. Wired West’s chair Monica Webb says they are in the process of finalizing a financial model for the expansion to 44 towns, estimating a gap of $60 million.

“A fairly unique financing strategy that we think makes it feasible for most if not all of the towns to participate in the development of a robust fiber-optic network,” said Webb.

The agencies plan to hold meetings across western Massachusetts this fall explaining what towns can expect. Webb says the hope is communities will vote whether to sign onto the fiber-optic network during annual town meetings in the spring.

“There’s no other technology that comes close to the capacity, the reliability and the speed of fiber-optic cable,” Webb said. “It really is what every major telecommunications firm is using today in terms of building out infrastructure. It’s built for the future.”

Eight western Massachusetts communities like Tyringham have set up their own internet networks using technologies such as wireless towers, which typically offer less bandwidth and whose reliability is subject to line of sight and weather. MBI interim director Phil Holahan says the agency will work with towns no matter which route they go.

“What we’re saying to the towns particularly if it’s a ubiquitous fiber to the home network, you’re going to be in charge of running this,” Holahan said. “How you choose to run it is your affair. Whether you want to have one service provider or multiple service providers that’s up to you.”

Webb says towns could go other routes if they didn’t want to foot a bill to sign onto the regional network, but considering the geography of western Massachusetts, doesn’t suggest it.

“A wireless network is about 95 percent wired,” Webb explained. “The only part that’s wireless is between the tower and your device. So if you want more coverage and faster service on wireless you really need a more robust fiber backbone feeding that wireless. As a result we believe that having this ubiquitous fiber-optic will help with enhancing our cell coverage here in western Massachusetts as well.”

Downing says the price will vary from town to town based on population, topography and existing infrastructure.

“But, I think what doesn’t vary in those communities is the commitment to the project, the understanding of the importance of the project and the desire to do it as quickly as possible and to make sure that we get the best solution possible,” said Downing.

Downing says the overall cost depends on how many towns sign on. He and State Representative Smitty Pignatelli of Lenox are hopeful interested towns will be lit up within three years.

“If you tell me I’m going to get broadband for $29.99 [a month], that’s a great deal,” State Representative Smitty Pignatelli said. “If you tell me that it’s $129.99, I might have some different thoughts. That’s why I think these community meetings are critically important. How are we going to do it? How are we going to get the fiber to your home or business? More importantly, how much am I going to have to charge you to make sure this is affordable for the network?”

Not including the most recent $50 million, since 2008, the state and federal governments have put $95 million into the commonwealth’s 1,200-mile fiber-optic network, which was supposed to completed by 2011.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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