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Alford to consider townwide broadband Internet accessibility plan

Convinced that Internet access is as essential modern living as electricity, the Alford Broadband Committee is well along the way of determining the process by which the town could build and organize a high-speed Internet infrastructure. Information meeting August 8, at 10 a.m. at Town Hall; vote on project Monday, August 10, at 7 p.m.

Alford — The tiny Berkshire town of Alford, population 494 – the ninth smallest town in Massachusetts with a density 34.5 people per square mile – is not waiting for a state agency, indifferent telecommunications corporations, or a regional collaborative to bring high-speed, broadband Internet connectivity to its rural citizens. It’s going to do itself.

second2015-07-31 13.02.38Convinced that Internet access is as essential to modern living as electricity, the Alford Broadband Committee is well along the way of determining the process by which the town could build and organize a high-speed Internet infrastructure. Indeed, the town recently posted a notice of a special town meeting August 10 at 7 p.m. at the Alford fire house, for voters to approve $1.6 million for the project, though it is expected to cost less.

The town’s volunteer ad hoc broadband committee, which is not an official town committee though it is listed on the town’s website, will hold an information session on Saturday, August 8 at 10 a.m., also at Town Hall, to explore and answer questions about the project and its financing details.

Members of the broadband committee — Tom Doyle, John Littlechild, Bruce Forster, Julie Scott, Jim Hall, Jay Weintraub and Bob Lichter — declined comment for fear information about the project might be misconstrued and in some way compromise the vote. Selectboard Chairman Tim Drumm could not be reached for comment.

Also known as broadband, high speed Internet service is deemed critical to economic survival and progress in this struggling rural region, where many towns still chug along on dial-up and DSL, at many megabits per second (mbps) below the 25 mbps of what the Federal Communications Commission, and broadband advocates, say is a healthy speed for commerce and education.

Alford is the latest of many Berkshire County towns to embark on the work to wire up its telephone poles with the fiber optic wires required for broadband. Gov. Charlie Baker’s office recently released $19 million of a $40 million allocation for wiring up central and western Massachusetts. The broadband committee has had “extensive meetings,” with the state’s entity for funding and construction, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), according to the committee’s newsletter, which in March stated:

“We have become increasingly confident that Alford will qualify for and receive its share of the funds. And we are planning our strategy around that goal.”

Notice of the Alford Broadband Committee information meeting, posted on the town's bulletin board in from of town offices.
Notice of the Alford Broadband Committee information meeting, posted on the town’s bulletin board in from of town offices.

Alford is one of few towns, however, that will go it alone. The town’s Municipal Lighting Plant (MLP) will build the network; the MLP was created in March for this purpose after voter approval, though its board has not yet been formally seated. Most local towns, as part of their bond authorization votes, joined WiredWest, a rural broadband cooperative that has been central to organizing the push for “the last mile” of wiring through western Massachusetts.

The Alford committee outlined two options for the town to consider when going about building and maintaining the network, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. The first is a “Public Option (Alford/MBI partnership)” that would follow Leverett, Massachusetts, a town that famously did its own infrastructure build out and is now live and running. There is also a “Public/Private Option,” in which a private company would build, operate and maintain the network.

The town hired Matrix Design Group to begin design work — including initial utility pole surveys­­ –– that would nail down costs and timetables, and the town overwhelmingly approved $20,000 to do that work. But a more detailed survey will have to be done when it’s time for what is known in the industry as “made-ready” work, extensive surveying of the poles to see if they require changes, and how much utility companies will charge for the use of each pole.

Financed over 20 years at 4 percent, the town is looking at $86,000 per year in borrowing costs, with 60 percent of the cost going to subscribers of the service and 40 percent of the remainder to taxpayers.

If the vote passes, a vote on debt exclusion — Proposition 2 ½ override — will follow a week later.

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