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Leverett bushwhacks way to fiber-optic future

Peter d’Errico, left, and Robert Brooks of Leverett look over plans for broadband at the Leverett Town Hall.

RECORDER/PAUL FRANZ

Peter d’Errico, left, and Robert Brooks of Leverett look over plans for broadband at the Leverett Town Hall. RECORDER/PAUL FRANZ Purchase photo reprints »

“It’s a real milestone,” Select Board member Peter d’Errico said. “It’s taken us almost two years in the making. As far as we’re aware, we’re still out front in getting this done first.”

In fact, while the town won a critical $40,000 grant from Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that paid for a detailed design study by G4S — the same company that won the $2.7 million construction contract — the journey has taken much longer. It’s also meant taxpayers agreeing to shoulder the burden of paying to have their network built, in part to assure that their home values keep up with the ever-growing demand for affordable high-speed telecommunication.

Robert Brooks, who chairs the town Broadband Committee, has been working on trying to bring high-speed telecommunications to the town for 10 years. Working with Shutesbury, Leverett began by approaching Verizon and Comcast to extend service, with little satisfaction.

“Out of our own internal sense of frustration of trying to deal with Verizon,” recalled d’’Errico, “it was pretty clear we were going to have to do it on our own. (Brooks) was the point person for exploring other avenues, saying, ‘We can work this out. If Leverett wants to do it, Leverett is going to have to do it.”

The town’s frustrations over telecommunication weren’t limited to simply bringing high-speed Internet service to its residents. Residents’ reports of interruptions in service, static and other noises that interrupted phone conversations and problems using the town’s reverse-911 calling system led to complaints against the telephone company to the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

“Any time we had any moisture or rain, whole sections of town would have no telephone service,” d’Errico said.

Similar complaints, brought by a variety of towns, including Rowe and Shutesbury, eventually led to a settlement that required Verizon to repair its copper phone wires, and those problems have largely abated, according to d’Errico. He emphasized that telephone service and Internet service are treated differently, however: DTC oversees land-line telephone, but not cellphone or broadband service.

Based on an estimate of less than a 2 percent hike in Leverett’s average property tax bill over the next 20 years to pay back a bond for construction — about $300 a year, d’Errico estimated — most residents will see a net savings of about $500 a year, based on a survey of what they’re paying now for phone and Internet using the system. The monthly service fee, including unlimited long-distance telephone as well as Internet, is estimated to be a little over $60, d’Errico said. An operator for the service, to be delivered at cost, has yet to be selected.

“Almost everybody in Leverett will save money at the end of the year,” d’Errico said. “They’ll spend that extra money on their tax bill, but if they’re already subscribing to the Internet and they have a telephone — both of which the network will provide — they will actually be saving money.”

The project sounds attractive enough to residents in the contiguous Chestnut Hill section of Montague that they’re looking into setting up a special betterment district to build a fiber connection to the Leverett system.

“We have no other options we feel are good options for broadband service other than satellite, which we feel is expensive and not very high performing,” said Jason Burbank, who is involved in the effort to link 60 to 65 Montague households. “The Leverett model seems to be far and away the best option for cost and performance.”

A November 2011 Broadband Committee survey found that 23 percent of Leverett residents resort to dial-up for Internet service, and 37 percent rely on a satellite hookup. Another 14 percent depend on a fixed wireless signal, while 20 percent have access to a digital subscriber line (DSL). Each of those, said Brooks, provides for far slower and less reliable service than fiber-optic cable. Although a “back-of-the-envelope” estimate by the Leverett-Shutesbury committee several years ago guessed it would cost about $3 million to wire each town with fiber, it was MBI’s $40,000 grant that moved things forward.

“Without that money from MBI, we wouldn’t be here. It’s that simple,” said Brooks, adding that the detailed design for Leverett’s network will be applicable to many other towns.

“If Town X wants to do what we did, they don’t need go through another $40,000 or $50,000. They can use our study as a template and say with a high degree of confidence that we believe it’s going to cost between X and Y.” But more than the MBI grant, Leverett has had another element in its favor trailblazing a solution.

“You need more than just well-meaning people,” said Brooks, who as a software engineer for Hewlett Packard is one of several committee volunteers bringing a high-level background to solving a complicated, fast-changing set of issues. “You need a fair amount of technical expertise.”

MBI Executive Director Judith Dumont said, “Leverett is the biggest success story. The broadband committee there did an amazing job.”

providing information to help them understand the costs and the benefits for the town. It’s a very similar project to what we’ve just gone through, on a much smaller scale.” But Leverett’s success, she added, is predicated on having the “middle mile” that MBI is building.

“Without this network, they would not have even been able to contemplate doing this,” she said. “Fiber to the home was so expensive, there was no possible way it could get done. If nothing else was done, a private provider wasn’t going to come in and invest the capital.” Now that MBI has leveled the playing field for rural towns in the regions, the next step will be helping them figure how, individually or collectively, they can follow Leverett’s lead and build the last mile.

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