Broadband options for rural areas of interest to visiting Chinese

Last modified: Tuesday, September 08, 2015

LEVERETT — Now that LeverettNet has been online for nearly four months — with 82 percent of the town’s 800 or so households reportedly connected — the town’s first-in-western-Massachusetts municipal broadband service caught the attention Wednesday of a top Chinese business newspaper.

As part of a tour of foreign journalists to western Massachusetts, the chief correspondent for Economic Daily, described as a “Chinese Wall Street Journal,” visited Town Hall and even stopped by the Village Co-Op to check out customers using the town’s new gigabit-per-second service.

That service, described by Massachusetts Broadband Institute Executive Director Eric Nakajima as “a national example of a successful broadband initiative project,” had become a greater bargain than townspeople planned when they first agreed to the $3.6 million project back in 2011, Selectman Peter d’Errico told the newspaper’s Zhang Wei. In addition to being approved by MBI to receive $906,000 from a state last-mile build-out bond for unserved communities, the town learned last week that the bond for $3 million of the project will be issued with an interest rate of 2.56 percent — nearly 1.5 percent lower than the 4 percent rate that was projected to cost the median household about $300 a year in additional property taxes.

For subscribers, who have been paying an average of $60 monthly for phone service and about $90 a month for satellite service that was described as clunky, with delays and much slower speeds, the combined $95 monthly service charge for “real broadband” is a bargain, d’Errico said.

The final costs to taxpayers are still being calculated based on the new interest rates, he said, but reports from residents so far are that they love the new service, especially since it involved, as Nakajima said, going from “Stone Age” dial-up speeds to “having the fastest residential service anywhere in Massachusetts.”

He explained to the Chinese journalist that while the state has been investing millions of dollars to bring broadband to 45 western Massachusetts towns to which private companies weren’t willing to provide high-speed telecommunication, Leverett was especially noteworthy as a “highly desirable” community in the shadow of the University of Massachusetts that “had been cut off.”

The effect was damaging to property values and the rental market, as well as people’s ability to work from home, said d’Errico. He described the recent satisfaction he’s heard from people in town who are now able to work from home, including a computer graphics designer for movies, a software designer whose partners work in Germany, England and Australia, and a woman who monitors photovoltaic solar arrays from home.

“Universally, they’re so happy,” he said.

Peter Reich of North Leverett Road, who had been used to 20 to 25 minutes for downloads of The Economist and The New Yorker by satellite, tested Leverett’s download speeds when the town’s system first started up in March and found those downloads to be “lightning fast.” Instead of his grandson chanting “It’s loading, it’s loading,” as he tried to watch his favorite steam-engine video, Reich reported, “Now it’s real.”

The town and state officials, along with officials from service provider Crocker Communications and network operator Holyoke Gas & Electric, explained to Zhang the public-private initiative, driven by volunteers in the town and assisted by state and federal funding, as well as votes by town meeting, as a system built with capacity to allow residents to make phone calls and watch television over the Internet.

And, d’Errico told the Chinese journalist, Leverett is working with the state Department of Public Health and the federal Center for Telemedicine and two health networks to speed up the financial process for providing health monitoring and diagnostic testing to residents.

“Again, the town is kind of at the front edge of technological development,” he said.

Tuesday’s tour, part of a three-day “Bridging the Digital Divide: The Transformation of Rural America Through Broadband Expansion” program arranged by the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Press Center, was joined later by two television journalists from China Central Television, the nation’s largest TV outlet.

The tour included stops at Amherst’s Brookfield Farm, which uses wireless crop monitoring tools to enhance sustainable agriculture, the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center in Holyoke, which uses hydropower to provide high-capacity computing for major research universities, and Valley Venture Mentors in Springfield.


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