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.
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.”
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.”