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Key piece of high speed Internet network near completion for western Massachusetts communities

The 1,200-mile journey to bring high-speed Internet connections to every corner of western Massachusetts will begin drawing to a close in a month. By May, Hampshire and Franklin counties will see the fruits of the state’s $71.6 million MassBroadband 123 initiative.

The fiber-optic network, being built with a combination of federal stimulus funds and state bond money, is intended as the “carrot” to service providers to build the last leg of a high-speed network to individual homes and businesses in each of the state’s 123 communities where that service is unavailable to at least half the population.

Massachusetts Broadband Institute began building the network two years ago. This month, it announced a completion schedule for five legs of the project, beginning in March with a stretch from Springfield west across the southern tier of Hampden and Berkshire counties.

With cable now stretched across 43 percent of the pathway, planners are projecting completion in May for Plainfield and Cummington, stretching over to most of Hampshire County in June, with South Hadley, Granby and Middlefield finishing in July.

A map of the network is available on the institute’s website.

When completed at the end of July, the network will provide fiber-optic connectivity directly to 1,200 facilities in more than 120 western and central Massachusetts communities. These “community anchor institutions” include schools, libraries, municipal buildings and public safety and health care facilities, which may be used in each community to build out a “last mile” high-speed network to every home and business.

‘Last mile’ issue

MBI Director Judith Dumont said that although the schedule calls for service to begin for much of the designated towns at the outset of each month, it will take two to six weeks for the entire branch of the network to be operational at all of the community anchor institutions.

And while residents and businesses in some far-flung locations with only slow dial-up or satellite connections available are eager to be served, it’s now up to towns or commercial service providers to take advantage of the new publicly built network to connect to individual customers — reaching out to the “last mile.”

“Two and a half years ago, we set upon our mission to deploy the regional fiber network western and central Massachusetts so greatly needed,” Dumont said. “We are now just months away from deploying a full middle-mile fiber backbone.”

Already completed, with federal funding, is a fiber-optic “backbone” along the Interstate 91 corridor that brings high-speed connectivity up the Valley from Springfield, along with a trunk line that connects the region from Boston and Ayer.

Work on the state’s “middle-mile” broadband infrastructure has moved largely on schedule, Dumont said, slowed only by severe weather events — especially Hurricane Sandy, which delayed by four to six weeks work being done with area utility crews who were dispatched to New York and New Jersey.

The system is being built by G4S, with cooperation from utility crews to arrange for placement on each of the 35,000 utility poles around the region. G4S now has 29 crews stringing fiber throughout the region and installing network interface equipment in each of the community anchor buildings. Nearly three-quarters of those have been completed.

Several of the largest communities in the network are those scheduled to have service turned on in June — or in the case of metropolitan Springfield, July. For example, in Greenfield, Northampton and Amherst, Dumont said, access to underground utility conduits is banned during winter months, when asphalt plants are also closed for the season.

“We’ve been getting towns to think they should be active and to think about what makes sense for their community,” she said.

Leverett has led the way among communities, designing a network and committing to develop it. Network operator Axia NGNetwork has signed up 30 providers. The towns may choose any of them, or recruit an additional provider to use the network and provide telecommunications services.

Jason Whittet, deputy director of MBI, described the reception from all of the towns as “strong.” He expressed hope that once the towns see the network turned on, they will follow Leverett’s example. He believes that some homes will obtain high-speed access once the network is on, and thinks that everyone else may have it relatively soon after.

Monica Webb, a spokeswoman for Wired West, a municipal cooperative set up to help its 42 member towns build their “last-mile networks,” says she sees interest in all of the towns she works with.

Support cards were distributed to residents of member towns to determine how many customers are likely to seek broadband services from Wired West. She has received about 10,000 cards back, and hopes to have closer to 12,000 by the time the program ends in late February. Webb has found that towns that already have cable service tend to have less interest, with only 5 percent of cards returned from Northfield, and 7 percent from Huntington and Great Barrington.

“MassBroadband 123 does solve a portion of the problem for us, and MBI did a phenomenal job,” Webb said.

But while the new network is a “good start” for getting service to homes and businesses, she said, the hope is that MBI can help Wired West get funding to connect to end-users.

Wired West is working to procure financing from both the public and private sectors.

Webb said it is difficult to estimate how long this could take. “Could be 6 months, could be 12 months,” she said. Once funded, the project would take about 18 months between permitting and building.

Once built, however, she said, the infrastructure could last 50 years or more.

Webb believes that getting people connected is “fundamental to the future of our community,” she said. She explained that she wants to see people building their homes and raising their families in these towns, not migrating to urban areas with high-speed access.

Dumont said the MassBroadband network plays a critical role in bringing those last-mile connections a step closer to reality, and that she sees a role for her agency in helping communities in the next step.

“We’re looking to close the digital divide,” she said.

On the Web: http://broadband. masstech.org.

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