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While state agency reboots, Western Massachusetts languishes without high-speed Internet

“A market dominated by the major cable and telephone companies has failed to provide these citizens with what is fast becoming a basic need like electricity or water.” -- The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, in report recommending the WiredWest 32-town cooperative as the vehicle for providing essential broadband Internet connectivity for rural Western Massachusetts

Great Barrington — Western Massachusetts taxpayers, most of whom compose some of the two percent of Americans who still lack high-speed internet, are collectively gazing eastward, and now beginning to stamp their feet, asking why an 8-year-old state agency, Massachusetts Broadband Institute, tasked with bringing high-speed internet to the region, is taking so long to do it, and why the agency appears not to be working in tandem with a local broadband collective, WiredWest, that a recent Harvard University study said was on the right track.

Everyone knows broadband is now critical to economic survival in a region where multiple factors are making economic growth hard enough. Even Great Barrington, which is served by Time Warner cable and Verizon DSL, doesn’t have the fast speeds and high capacity that many businesses now require to stay competitive. Iredale Mineral Cosmetics Inc. and Mahida Family Hospitality hotels, for instance, have had to install special lines – at great expense — for their Internet connections. A recording studio in Housatonic, as another example, looses potential business for lack of Internet speed.

Jane Iredale, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox). Iredale pays almost $2,000 per month for high speed Internet at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics’ world headquarters in Great Barrington. The Baker-Polito administration had just announced the release of $19 million of the $50 million dedicated to the Last Mile. Photo: Heather Bellow
Jane Iredale, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox). Iredale pays almost $2,000 per month for high speed Internet at Iredale Mineral Cosmetics’ world headquarters in Great Barrington. The Baker-Polito administration had just announced the release of $19 million of the $50 million dedicated to the Last Mile. Photo: Heather Bellow

In an April 20 report on the WiredWest effort to bring a fibre optic broadband network to rural Western Massachusetts communities, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University said this about the situation here: “A market dominated by the major cable and telephone companies has failed to provide these citizens with what is fast becoming a basic need like electricity or water. Similar problems afflict many rural communities in the United States.”

Everyone knows it’s a problem and says it’s a problem. That includes Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, state legislators, and business leaders. The state even started an agency to make sure it was keeping technology up to speed: the MBI (Massachusetts Broadband Institute).

And the Legislature directed $50 million in taxpayer money towards building the “Last Mile” of fiber optic infrastructure to get towns up and running throughout the rest of the state, where the “Middle Mile” had already been installed, with hubs for fiber optic lines that will ultimately connect towns and individual households to the main system.

Of that $50 million, $19 million was released last year.

But in March the money was put on “pause,” while the Baker-Polito administration, clearly concerned, said it wanted to assess the options and find the best way forward. This was after tiny towns like Alford, Otis and Mt. Washington, for example, grew impatient, and held town meetings to approve borrowing to build their own networks outside of the WiredWest cooperative, all with the knowledge that their share of the last mile money would be available. In an online newsletter post just after the funding pause, Alford officials said subsequent discussions with MBI officials were unproductive. Now everything appears to be in a state of suspension.

Last summer, the tiny town of Alford approved bonding to install a townwide broadband network for all residents -- with the expectation that MBI would provide funding. Photo: Heather Bellow
Last summer, the tiny town of Alford approved bonding to install a townwide broadband network for all residents — with the expectation that MBI would provide funding. Photo: Heather Bellow

Robert Lichter, Chair of Alford’s Municipal Light Plant (MLP) Board said Thursday while the board was recently contacted by MBI officials, there’s been “no reversal of the [state funding] authorization…if the money has been allocated we don’t know what the expectations are…everyone is anxious and eager to move on…and we are moving.” He reminded the Edge that, indeed, the town had authorized “enough [bonding] to do it even without state support.”

On the other hand, Mt. Washington officials, having received town meeting approval for the installation of a town-wide broadband network, appear confident the state money will be there — at least for now.

“Our recent deep-dive assessment of the Last Mile project revealed many financial, legal, technical and operational challenges,” said Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Jay Ash.

Newly installed MBI Board Chairman Peter Larkin.
Newly installed MBI Board Chairman Peter Larkin.

That appeared to shuffle things around at the MBI lately. Former Executive Director Eric Nakajima resigned in February to pursue another path, and was replaced by Elizabeth Copeland, who has since returned to her work at Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Soon after, Baker-Polito administration announced a new “leadership team” under Ash. Former Pittsfield state representative Peter Larkin is now chairman of MBI’s board and Special Advisor to Ash; Larkin is founder and principal of Public Policy Advisors, a Pittsfield-based lobbying firm whose clients include the General Electric Company.

Larkin told the Edge there was no longer an Executive Director at MBI as the agency was “repivoting, resetting the course.” Larkin has not been available for interviews that would delve in detail into the issues of providing broadband connectivity to his home region of Western Massachusetts or about the MBI’s relationship with WiredWest. He said he would soon speak the Edge more extensively.

Bill Ennen is now the Last Mile Implementation Liasion. Ennen was program director for the John Adams Innovation Institute at Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Ennen has lately been running all over the region, meeting with town officials to help get them started on a broadband plan. He, too, was unavailable for comment in time for this article.

The Baker-Polito administration also announced that it would take a new and “flexible” approach to getting high-speed service to “unserved or underserved” towns. “We are committed to close collaboration with these communities and fostering openness, engagement and problem-solving,” Polito said.

All the delays have “frustrated” Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield). “There’s no excuse for where we are right now,” he told the Edge, noting how much time he has spent working on this issue.

But Downing is “optimistic,” too, he said, “because of grass roots efforts in dozens of communities.”

Wired West spokesperson and New Marlborough resident Tim Newman.
Wired West spokesperson and New Marlborough resident Tim Newman.

Downing is, in part, talking about the so-far all-volunteer efforts of local broadband cooperative WiredWest, which out of frustration and desperation came up with a “regional fiber solution.” The complexity of wiring up towns and finding a sustainable financial model that will work in a sparsely populated rural region is what gave birth to the co-op. WiredWest says the co-op’s hard work and deep financial analysis shows “regionalization creates the lowest cost, and is the most sustainable and lowest risk broadband option for towns” given the economies of scale and pooled resources.

The co-op now has 32 towns in its fold — out of 44 “unserved” towns — with 24 towns having voted to authorize bonding two-thirds of the cost, with each town’s share of MBI Last Mile funds eventually funneling into the collective pot. Those 24 WiredWest towns have so far authorized a total of $38 million; 7,100 residents have signed up for service.

Despite this organizational coup, MBI took aim at WiredWest last December with both a consultant’s critical analysis of its financial model, and a scorching letter from Nakajima to Western Massachusetts town officials that basically said the cooperative didn’t know what it was doing. Further, MBI discouraged towns from joining WiredWest by telling towns it would withhold state funding from towns that didn’t jump ship, and since then, MBI has spent a lot of time, effort and money encouraging towns to go it alone.

Downing said Nakajima was caught up short “without clear direction from higher ups in the Baker administration,” and in “an unenviable position trying to find a way to make this thing work.

“For too long MBI tried to say ‘here’s our model, you come fit it,’ instead of having a mix,” Downing added.

But WiredWest took seriously MBI’s criticism that towns wouldn’t own their networks and infrastructure, and radically changed their operating plan to reflect that. It also debunked MBI’s negative analysis as plain wrong and misleading. There has been no response from MBI, and MBI has publically ignored WiredWest’s accusation that MBI’s technical consulting firm, WIPRO, used inaccurate data.

CROPPED MAP wireline-techs-statewide-20141022b

Meanwhile, WiredWest performed its own analysis comparing subscriber fees for stand-alone networks to those of regional networks for 30 unserved towns, and found the regional approach to offer significant savings. Another analysis shows that the economies of scale, and the cost sharing of regionalization provides savings to the towns.

Yet at a March MBI board meeting, no one said boo about a regional network, let alone WiredWest, leading the co-op to think state officials will be advocating the stand-alone approach. The Baker-Polito administration also has not made mention of the co-op.

And this despite an April study by The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University that said WiredWest’s plan for a fiber build-out, and a network that will also include economical phone service and television, offers a sustainable solution.

The Berkman study also says fiber optics are best over the long haul. It advises MBI not to go cheap on this, and to not make choices that are ripe for obsolescence. The study’s authors take a stand here, and take aim at the idea of wireless as an alternative:

“MBI should conduct a thorough life-cycle analysis and give preference to technologies that demonstrate superior value over a minimum of 30 years. In that regard, MBI should be aware that, compared with fiber optics, copper-based technologies typically have significantly lower capacity, degrade more quickly, and have greater potential for technological obsolescence. Similarly, while wireless technologies can play important roles over short distances, they have not been shown to offer the proven reliability, capacity, and environmental suitability of high-speed networks based primarily on fiber optics.”

The Berkman Report notes that “the MLP Free can be adjusted to ensure positive net income for any town, bjt the important point is that an MLP Free can be set for a regional group that is much less than what most towns could achieve independently since operating costs are spread evenly across all subscribers.”
WiredWest’s regionalization report notes that “the MLP Free can be adjusted to ensure positive net income for any town, but the important point is that an MLP Free can be set for a regional group that is much less than what most towns could achieve independently since operating costs are spread evenly across all subscribers.”

The idea that wireless would, with its radio technology and towers, be considered as a solution in a mountainous and forested region, has people worried.

“It’s perfectly good technology if you live in Phoenix or outer Mongolia or Kansas — because it’s flat there,” observed Tim Newman of New Marlborough, a spokesperson for WiredWest. He noted that there are, so far, no examples of wireless success in “this kind of terrain.”

More than a few people were alarmed when, at the March MBI board meeting, there was talk of hiring a consultant to study a wireless option.

Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) told the Edge that if wireless technology is chosen over fiber it will “send me through the roof.” Pignatelli, who has been conferring regularly with MBI officials said the agency was looking at alternative technologies like wireless because it’s “cheaper.” But he says it’s also “shortsighted, outdated, ill conceived” and troublesome given Berkshires topography.

“Wireless has not worked in Tyringham, Alford, and I asked MBI and will ask again: ‘If you can show me an area of this community with our topography and density or lack thereof with a legitimate wireless high speed technology, I might buy it.’

“We need to build this thing,” he said of a fiber optic system. “It is the greatest potential for growth and expansion for the future. Wireless may work fine today, but not in 5 to 10 years. We’ll never have another bite of the apple, so let’s do it right or we are wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Pignatelli says the administration was smart to take a step back, given the lack of progress by MBI.

The Wired West 32-town cooperative has campaigned for a regional approach to communications infrastructure.
The Wired West 32-town cooperative has campaigned for a regional approach to communications infrastructure.

Downing said he had read the Berkman study and has spoken to one of its authors, Susan Crawford. “I don’t think there’s a way forward without Wired West,” he said, adding that it is because of volunteer citizens, the “driving force behind WiredWest, that we’ve been able to secure funding for a network backbone, the middle mile. “They deserve a great deal of credit for the $50 million. If we didn’t have them pushing with us that would have been harder.”

Downing says the administration appears to be stepping it up. “It’s good news that Larkin and Ennen were brought in — not just because both are from Western Mass (Ennen is from Shelburne). They know the importance of this to the broader regional economy.”

He also addressed the administration’s hold on that $50 million. “All these communities are working off numbers that MBI provided to them — the votes were taken based on those,” he said. “If for some reason those numbers have changed then towns need to be told that ASAP and so does the Legislature…and we want to know why — there may be good reasons the numbers have changed, but one thing we’ve said to Peter and Bill is that [the towns] should have already been told that.”

Yet WiredWest representatives are hopeful. “We’re very happy and excited about the new leadership, and a tremendous amount of new energy,” said WiredWest spokesperson Tim Newman. “Ennen has already been to many towns. What we’re waiting for is our opportunity to meet face to face with the new leadership and discuss changes we’ve made to our policy based largely on the critique we got from MBI in December — a new approach that answers all of the concerns that they raised. We’re here to work with them. We hope they agree. We’re hopeful that they will.”

Newman says sustaining the networks is more a challenge than the initial capital expense. “We think we can help [MBI and the towns] on the operating side in a way towns can afford,” he said. “They’re [MBI] getting the ball rolling very aggressively — we think that’s great.”

A petition to Gov. Baker, asking him to release the funding and build the network, shows a growing desperation in these hills. The petition by Shutesbury resident Gayle Huntress had, as of Thursday (May 26), 5,840 signatures.

Downing said while it was crucial for WiredWest to make sure towns are protected financially, he said an important question is “how to use the WiredWest framework in a way that makes us comfortable.

“It was an organic initiative that came up because of need,” he said. “And the MBI got a little bit too locked into one way of thinking.”

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