WiredWest workshop to unveil regional broadband solution

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — A regional solution for operating a broadband fiber-to-home network in unserved towns in western Massachusetts will be unveiled at a workshop Saturday.

WiredWest, the municipal cooperative made up of 27 member towns, is holding the meeting at 9:30 a.m. at JFK Middle School, 100 Bridge Road, during which representatives will present information about two private operators interested in overseeing the network, and what this would mean for costs to future subscribers.

New Marlborough resident Tim Newman, a spokesman for the cooperative, said the idea to seek a private operator for when the network is up and running came after the Massachusetts Broadband Institute announced a policy, in December 2015, that each town must own its individual network.

MBI was created in 2008, with a $40 million allocation, to support the build-out of the network. So far, 24 towns have passed debt exclusions appropriating money that would cover two-thirds of the cost. Throughout these communities, around 7,000 residents have pledged to subscribe.

But since actual operations could be cost-prohibitive, Newman said, a regional solution is seen as creating efficiencies, providing customers with affordable rates for services and ensuring long-term sustainability.

“What we want to do is aggregate as many towns as are interested, and WiredWest would function as the administrator of the network,” Newman said.

The operations, to be contracted with an existing company, would include essential services, including the internet service provider, network operations, billing, customer service and maintenance.

Towns will only be individually responsible for debt incurred in building their town-owned infrastructure and for their depreciation reserves, Newman said. Each town will have the option of adding surcharges to subscriber bills to cover some or all of the operational costs.

The workshop comes as MBI this week announced that six companies have responded to a request for proposal to “identify qualified private firms willing to design, build, own, operate, manage and maintain high-speed broadband Internet networks in the 40 Massachusetts towns currently unserved by broadband.”

The companies are Charter Communications, Comcast, Crocker Communications Inc., Fiber Connect LLC, Mid-Hudson Data Corp. and Westfield Gas & Electric, which does business as Whip City Fiber.

In October, MBI announced that Shutesbury, Ashfield, New Salem and Wendell in Franklin County, and Egremont in Berkshire County, would have pole surveys done to ensure they are ready to support the broadband equipment.

That followed several grants awarded since MBI and the Baker-Polito administration announced a new framework for implementing “last-mile” broadband projects in unserved and underserved communities in May. Those included a $4 million award in August to Comcast to extend broadband networks in nine western and central Massachusetts communities, including Huntington and Pelham.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.