Eleven Select boards in Franklin County are ready to take the next step with WiredWest Cooperative. According to the Recorder, the towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell have all approved nonbinding resolutions taking them into the financial planning phase.
Last fall, the organization and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) agreed to meet on a regular schedule. The two organizations began meeting with town Select Boards in order to update them on financial obligations to help them decide whether or not to participate.
WiredWest Cooperative has worked with The Western Massachusetts Legislative Delegation On The Last Mile Broadband Solution to create a strategy to improve connectivity statewide. In addition to WiredWest, the group included MBI, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG), and the Mass TechCollaborative. Several state lawmakers, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, participated in the delegation.
The state will supply approximately $40 million in grant funding to MBI, that will disburse the funds, to defray the costs of deployment in hill towns. The Recorder reported:
[Monica] Webb, [speaking for WiredWest Cooperative] said the first thing town officials want to know is how much of that $40 million grant will be available to reduce their town’s share of the cost.
“The first step was to determine which towns want to participate,” said Webb. “Now that we know, there’s detailed engineering to be done. … The numbers the towns will get will be our best estimate. We’re still refining our best estimates, but I expect that will be done over the next month.
“Towns have told us they need that information as soon as possible,” she added. “We’re working to make that happen.
“The other thing we’re going to focus on, over the next months, is a pre-subscription campaign. We won’t build out (the fiber optic network) in a town until the town has at least 40 percent (of its subscription base), who have signed up and given a deposit.”
Webb said pre-subscribers will be asked to pay a $50 deposit, which will go into an escrow account; once the town is wired, that deposit will be used to reduce their first Internet service bill.
The cooperative has more than 40 member communities. Their pre-subscription campaign will begin in late January. In February and March, WiredWest and MBI will hold informational meetings with local officials and work on business and operational plans.
As WiredWest makes its way across Massachusetts, local communities are deciding whether or not to invest to take advantage of the new connection to the big pipe that is MassBroadband 123. Leyden, population approximately 700, will vote at its annual spring town meeting whether or not to work with WiredWest to deploy fiber in Leyden.
A December article in the Recorder reported that the Selectboard voted to support the measure which would require a two-thirds vote at the annual town meeting. A debt exclusion vote will be held if that measure passes and requires a majority vote. The debt exclusion will allow Leyden to borrow in order to fund the municipal build out.
The current estimate for a network in Leyden is between $900,000 and $1.77 million. The most recent decision by the Selectboard will allow MBI to develop a more accurate plan and detailed estimate according to the Recorder.
Part of Leyden has DSL service but a 2012 WiredWest survey indicated that 56% of Leyden residents were interested in better connectivity. Popular opinion in Leyden among locals is that lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity scares away potential home buyers and new businesses. Al Woodhull, Leyden’s alternate WiredWest delegate told the Recorder:
A new DSL connection was one of the reasons Woodhull bought his home five years ago.
“The house had been on the market for several years, and the previous owner had been very pleased to get DSL, because she hadn’t been able to sell the house without any kind of high-speed Internet,” he said.
Elected officials in these smaller communities have tossed around the investment for months. Few of these small communities are accustomed to such large investments and political leaders understand the risk aversion. From a November Recorder article:
“I don’t think this is a hard sell for a finance committee, but I think it’s a terribly hard sell for a town meeting,” said Charlemont Finance Committee member Toby Gould. “Unless marketing comes up with proposals that are easily understood, they won’t buy it. … They have to be convinced this project is worth investing in.”
Local channel WWLP spoke to Leyden residents in December :
James Finney has lived in Leyden over a decade and would welcome high speed internet access. He said, “If all the other places in the county are getting the high speed and we’re back in the older technology, it certainly is going to diminish the chances that we’re going to be able to attract the businesses and the educational opportunities that are out there.”