Wired western Mass. on the horizon

WESTFIELD – Residents of western Massachusetts live in varied environments, from small, densely populated cities like Holyoke and Springfield to the Berkshires and the hilltowns of western Hampden and Hampshire Counties.
While many of those living in greater Springfield enjoy easy access to the Internet, a luxury of modern life some might say has become an all-important utility, many of the Bay State’s most rural residents are still having to make due without broadband access – and are being left behind in the process.
Over the past four years, in 44 communities spread throughout Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties, the WiredWest Cooperative has been laying the groundwork for wireless broadband Internet to reach these previously unserved towns.
“This has certainly picked up steam in terms of the Mass. Broadband Institute’s (MBI) backing (of WiredWest),” said Dan Jacques, a member of WiredWest’s executive committee and a member of the town of Montgomery’s Select Board.
Cummington Selectman and Vice Chair of the WiredWest Executive Board Jim Drawe said yesterday that the MBI will be footing $40 million of the project’s bill, which he estimates will be between $100-$110 million total.
Jacques added that a series of events must happen before the project can get off the ground.
“Each of the participating towns needed to submit a resolution from their Board of Selectmen saying that they are behind it, which allows the towns to be included in the engineering,” he said, adding that 34 of the 44 communities have sent in these resolutions.
“The second part is to ensure we achieve at least a 40 percent payrate in each of the towns,” said Jacques. He said a campaign will get underway at the end of this month encouraging residents of all the communities who have signed resolutions to essentially put a deposit down on their first month’s service, which would come out to about $49.
“Forty percent is about what it needs to break even,” he said. “Anything above that means that we are cash flow positive.”
The third and perhaps most tedious component of the project will be the approval of borrowing authorizations from all of the WiredWest member towns at their annual town meetings.
“The other 60 percent has got to be funded through bonds from borrowing authorizations, which will be amassed in a single WiredWest bond,” said Jacques.
Draw said that several towns in the four western counties have declined to join the cooperative, while several other towns have opted to go for a hybrid wireless-fiber optic solution of their own.
“We have not come up with an apportionment formula to say how much of that $40 million will go to those 34 towns,” he added. “We’re working on (the apportionment formula) and the MBI board of directors will have the final say on how those dollars will be divided up. We expect a decision on that within the next month or so.”
The MBI received $50 million from the Commonwealth’s most recent information technology bond bill early last summer, according to Drawe, with $40 million going to the unserved communities, $5 million going to towns partially served by cable companies and the remaining $5 million going to the MBI for administrative purposes.
“The Request for Proposal for the owners project manager will go out sometime in January, while an RFP for engineering services will go out in February,” said Drawe. “There will also be an RFP for an engineering company to come in and do pole surveys, as we have about 70,000 service poles that have to be examined and talked about.”
“This will go a long way at Town Meeting to determine the costs, as right now we’re just working on estimates,” he said, adding that most Town Meetings will take place in early May.
Drawe said the MBI is spending money up front to get better estimates and doing work that needs to be done prior to Town Meeting. He touted the project’s benefits to the region.
“The economic benefit, in our mind, is fairly significant,” he said. “The (UMass) Donahue Institute did a study a few years ago on population trends in western Mass. and found that the older cohort will continue to grow as a proportion of the total population over the next decade or so.”
“Part of the reason is that young families aren’t living in these hilltowns because they don’t have Internet access,” Drawe said. “In talking with Realtors, they say that people will ask ‘Is the Internet available? Is high speed Internet available?’ We know people in the hilltowns who have had their homes for sale for two years and have cut prices, but the world out there thinks you have to have the Internet in order to have a decent lifestyle.”
Small businesses and schools will benefit immensely from the project, according to Drawe.
“DSL is not sufficiently fast enough and widespread enough to accomodate their needs,” he said. “The schools have declining student populations and rising costs, so not having Internet limits their options in terms of using ebooks and online classrooms as alternatives that would save the school budgets money in the long run.”
“Without universal Internet, those options aren’t even on the table,” he said.

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