Twelve Communities in Western Mass. on Board for Muni Broadband Project
This country was founded upon communities in New England helping themselves instead of relying on others to fix their problems, said Blair Levin, Gig.U executive director, speaking to us on municipal broadband projects. So it’s good to see municipalities, such as the more than 40 that originally banded together to form WiredWest, going back to those roots and joining together to obtain universal access, he said. While no one was clear what the right path would be a few years ago when states and municipalities began talking about building their own fiber networks, there have been some experiments and things are beginning to shake out, Levin said. "Rural areas have difficult economics, but as we've seen with the Gig.U efforts, the barrier ultimately is not economics, the barrier ultimately is organization—if you organize your community to have a next generation network, you'll get one," he said. "I think what they're doing in western Massachusetts is a really great experiment and if it works, a lot of places ought to seriously consider doing the same thing." Levin was among several officials we spoke to about the state of municipal broadband in western Massachusetts and elsewhere.
If big telcos such as Comcast and Verizon aren’t willing to build broadband in rural, underserved areas, such as western Massachusetts, the municipalities and states are going to have to do it themselves, said Monica Webb, WiredWest-chairwoman. Twelve of about 30 Massachusetts towns in the region already
have joined WiredWest’s plan for universal access and eventually will be able to access a fiber network that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will be building over the next few years, she said. That residents are willing to spend the money on the network means they believe building it is worth the time and investment, she said. "The residents and businesses that don’t have access to broadband are willing to take steps to invest collectively in our future and... they believe that building a locally owned, municipal network with service to everyone is the best option for our region," Webb said.
The state is covering 35 percent of the project’s cost , making it even easier for the buildout to happen, Webb said. The next step is to have municipalities express interest in joining WiredWest, she said. Before a community can build, at least 40 percent of residents must be subscribed to the network and the town must there’s a fluid timeline, said Webb. "This project to build out all 30 towns is probably, the state is telling us, three to four years to build out everything," she said. "As towns are built[out] and tested and ready in groups, those will come online. So some towns will come online before others."
While WiredWest is a unique situation with so many municipalities teaming up, other states and communities are looking to similar plans, Levin said. Communities in Connecticut and Minnesota are seeking a path to universal access, just not on the same road, said Chris Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance director-community broadband networks initiative. Companies such as Comcast and Verizon are interested in highly populated cities, not more rural areas, so they seem more than happy to let the municipalities take over their own service, he said. "Verizon really doesn’t care about this territory; they're happy to see someone else serving it," Mitchell said. "I think Verizon is trying to figure out how to shed a lot of its rural lines, so I kind of wonder if Verizon hopes there’s a way that it can kind of back out of rural Massachusetts and sort of leave the obligations of making sure everyone has a working telephone to WiredWest. I don’t know how that would happen, but it seems like that’s the direction that Verizon is taking—they're trying to get out of the landline business."
Drew Clark, Of Counsel to Kirton McConkie, said this is an exciting time because it’s a great implementation of the next phase of what the broadband stimulus efforts were about. States are making their own commitment to get universal access to fiber-to-the-home networks, he said. Clark likens the access to broadband to access to electricity in its early days. Big companies would serve the larger population areas and co-ops and municipalities served the more rural areas, he said. "We may have to have a similar push here," Clark said. "You're going to have a lot of towns and cities that are not in the core populated areas that are going to be served by a public-private or a fully private solution."