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John Phelan
The Berkshire County town of Sandisfield is pursuing a unique, four-town strategy to get a fiber optic network up and running. Resident Jean Atwater-Williams worries that the town’s residents don’t know that this newer strategy is not what was voted on at town meeting in 2014.

Sandisfield resident calls for town revote on broadband strategy

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By Saturday, Mar 4, 2017 News 4

Sandisfield — As regional frustration over limping Internet speeds reaches a fever pitch, it is only natural that there would be disagreements about the way forward as some Berkshire County towns begin to take a more aggressive approach at addressing what is quickly becoming the largest threat to the Berkshires’ economic survival and development.

This little town of 800 has 90 miles of roadway and Internet speeds that are impairing the functioning of many residents’ lives. The town voted in 2014 to bond out for a fiber optic network it would own, thinking at the time it might enter into the plan presented by broadband cooperative WiredWest. That would have involved joining around 30 other towns and pooling resources, including each town’s share of the $40 million set aside by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) for getting broadband into the rural west.

But after an MBI consultant criticized WiredWest’s proposal, former MBI director Erik Nakajima told towns in December 2015 the agency would withhold funding for those that joined WiredWest. This had towns disappointed and scrambling.

“We were at a standstill and had no place to go,” said Sandisfield Selectboard chair Alice Boyd.

Jean Atwater-Williams at the Monterey General Store. Photo: Heather Bellow

Jean Atwater-Williams at the Monterey General Store. Photo: Heather Bellow

This is when Sandisfield got together with New Marlborough, Tolland and Monterey to work to solve this together, apply to the MBI for money, and get to the procurement process where they are now, with three companies having bid to build the network and provide the services.

Boyd said she got a call just this week from MBI’s Bill Ennen, who said the agency will give Sandisfield $1.2 million toward professional services/engineering, after the town was told it would only get $620,000.

While the broadband ball is now rolling in these four towns, resident Jean Atwater-Williams said she wants to make sure everyone knows where that ball is headed and, in an article in the Sandisfield Times, called for a revote on this new route the town is pursuing.

A former WiredWest board member, Atwater-Williams admits she is an advocate of a regional solution and of a cooperative approach that will have towns owning their networks and eventually making a profit, according to WiredWest’s projections. She says she’s not sure the town’s residents fully know that what’s happening now is not what was voted on.

“We voted for a model that we would own,” she said, adding that there wasn’t any WiredWest language in the article presented by the town to voters. “The town’s RFP (request for proposal) is very different. I feel the public should have the right to fully understand.”

After the Nakajima letter about WiredWest hit towns–and the cooperative­–like a bomb back in 2015, Atwater-Williams said Boyd told her the town would start looking into other options. Atwater-Williams said she told Boyd that, if the model were to change, “I felt very strongly that citizens should revote it.”

Atwater-Williams resigned from the town’s broadband committee in January in protest over a “lack of transparency,” she said.

In the Sandisfield Times, Atwater-Williams said that “nearly” unanimous town vote in 2014 was made with the “intention” of banding with WiredWest. “The current plan, hatched behind closed doors after private discussions with Frontier [telecommunications company], is something entirely different,” she further wrote.

She told the Edge she didn’t think the town’s broadband process was “transparent.”

Coming up with a four-town solution at a meeting in January. From left: Rep. William 'Smitty' Pignatelli, D-Lenox; MBI’s Ed Donnelly; MBI board chair Peter Larkin; liaison Bill Ennen; Monterey Selectboard member Ken Basler; Sandisfield broadband committee chair Jeff Bye; and Sandisfield town manager Alice Boyd. Photo: Heather Bellow

Coming up with a four-town solution at a meeting in January. From left: Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, D-Lenox; MBI’s Ed Donnelly; MBI board chair Peter Larkin; liaison Bill Ennen; Monterey Selectboard member Ken Basler; Sandisfield broadband committee chair Jeff Bye; and Sandisfield town manager Alice Boyd. Photo: Heather Bellow

Atwater-Williams also said having a private company own and provide services, with no guarantees of pricing ahead of time, could leave the town vulnerable to the whims of a corporate master and would eliminate the possibility of potential future revenue.

“Our town would never see any potential profits, we would have no control over pricing or offerings and we would never be able to change providers,” she wrote.

“We should be allowed to see what the pricing is, and I believe we deserve a vote,” she told the Edge.

Boyd said the board would have to wait to gather as much information from companies as possible. “When the bid award is made, then we will make an announcement to accurately describe services.”

Boyd further said while the broadband committee wants services from a private provider, it also wants them to pay part of the cost.

“We want them to put some skin in the game,” she said.

Boyd wrote a rebuttal of Atwater-Williams’ points in the same Times issue, and also told The Edge that the process is made transparent through Selectboard announcements and daily website updates, and said the board will bring residents in for a public session.

Also, just this week, legal concerns of Atwater-Williams appear to have been addressed after Boyd said at a Selectboard meeting the four towns’ shared attorney has signed off on what were at first questionable elements of this unique pathway the four towns are forging together.

Both Boyd and Atwater-Williams have home-based businesses and travel for work. And both worked together to create solutions on other challenging town issues, like the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company’s proposed construction of a new natural gas pipeline segment here.

Atwater-Williams, who herself struggles to operate her website consulting business in Sandisfield due to slow Internet speeds, says her motivation is to get the town wired but to also look out for residents who will be subscribers to an Internet provider for many years.

And Boyd appears to have the same concerns.

“We’re trying to minimize the risk and the cost to the town,” she said. “Our goal is to bring this to our residents as good and as cheaply as possible with as little risk.”

Where they differ is that Atwater-Williams wants another binding referendum for the board’s new approach.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter if the town owns it or not,” she wrote in the Times. “Maybe just having broadband is enough. Either way, the final decision should not be made without being brought before the citizenry.”

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    It’s poor strategy for a town to throw tax dollars at a subsidy. It will never end. Get government out of the private sector. If it can’t stand on its own, abandon it. You you are that desperate to have speedier internet, it may make sense to mode.

    1. George Grumbach says:

      Anonymous John, you are at it again. Any time any part of government is involved in offering help to the people, you are against it. You get so exercised that you don’t even proofread your comments, rendering them incoherent. (What does “it may make sense to mode” mean?). Your analysis is also ridiculously simplistic. Internet carriers are not in the private sector. They are in both the public and private sector. For example, their connections, be they cable or fiber optic, are along public rights of way. Nongovernmental internet carriers always contract with local municipalities to provide service. When they will not or cannot do so with exclusively private funds, or when those terms would be less favorable for the citizens, other terms may be agreed to, including possible subsidies, so that the citizens can access high speed internet, which you must enjoy yourself, since you comment so frequently, albeit anonymously.

  2. diane provenz says:

    We need to see the impact on individual homeowners as well as the town. Broadband is a vital utility – like electricity – without it our towns won’t compete economically and the value of your hoes will decrease substantially.

  3. Richard Squailia says:

    Good reporting on this sensitive and complicated issue. In general, citizens of Massachusetts need to understand just how much power we have in our particular form and application of democracy. The Town Meeting form of government lends itself to a grassroots activism. The Board of Selectmen, if you read our laws, act in an administrative function to apply the will of the people through annual and special Town Meetings.

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