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Work begins on Alford’s high-speed, townwide Internet network

The town of Alford recently learned that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will give it $270,000 and also reimburse it for half the cost of getting its utility poles surveyed.

Alford — One of the tiniest towns in the Berkshires is about to be one of the first in the region to have townwide, high-speed Internet access, also known as broadband, after the town voted last year to spend up to $1.6 million to build and operate its own fiber optic network.

The town recently learned that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state’s entity for overseeing and funding the construction of networks across the state, will give Alford $270,000, a share of $40 million dedicated by the legislature to broadband expansion into western Massachusetts. The MBI will also reimburse the town for half the cost of getting Alford’s utility poles surveyed.

The town, population 494, is already seeing National Grid trucks out on its roads, examining its share of 722 utility poles for the Comm-Tract Corporation to determine what each needs to prepare them to accept fiber cables. An email from the town’s Municipal Light Plant (MLP) board — established to oversee building and operation of the network — reported that pole surveying is done, and “pole-attachment agreements with Verizon and National Grid have been signed…applications for licenses to attach fiber to the poles…submitted.”

The town offices in Alford, a town that considers access to high-speed Internet connectivity essential. Photo: Heather Bellow.
The town offices in Alford, a town that considers access to high-speed Internet connectivity essential. Photo: Heather Bellow.

There are other details to come like Verizon’s work to survey its poles. This may be done by mid-September, absent things like “really bad weather.”

But MLP Chair Robert Lichter said the work so far is “ahead of schedule.”

“We’re optimistic and excited,” Lichter said. “There are tangible things happening. You can actually, in principle, reach out and touch them,” he added, joking about the vintage AT&T jingle.

The town’s excitement is understandable after a bit of drama — and a shakeup at MBI — after Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration put a “pause” on that $40 million for rural broadband efforts. Like many towns, Alford thought the state might not come through to help underwrite pricey fiber build-outs.

Towns across the region, feeling left on the wrong side of a “digital divide,” as it is called, are trying to figure this out, realizing how critical broadband is to modern life and local economies. The problem gave birth to 32-town broadband cooperative WiredWest, which is still working to make it happen. Some towns didn’t want to wait, however, and so took the solo route. Mt. Washington, for instance is, like Alford, on its way to also being one of the first towns to get wired up on its own with its share of MBI funds.

There are more details in store for Alford, like negotiating costs of all this “make-ready” work, which will be paid from the town’s authorized money. It’s unclear when it will all be done, but the MLP says the law requires pole owners to make “best efforts” to finish the job within six months. In Alford this won’t be “complicated” since most poles in town “carry only electrical and telephone cables,” and “a very small number also carry the MBI123 ‘middle mile’ connection to the Town Hall and firehouse.”

The middle mile was an MBI project that installed fiber optic connections to municipal locations throughout western Massachusetts in preparation for town fiber network build-outs.

Next for the MLP is design and engineering. It will continue to work with the MBI’s newly hired, western Massachusetts-based officials Peter Larkin and Bill Ennen on an as-needed basis.

“We have a very good relationship with MBI and look forward to continuing that,” Lichter said, adding that Ennen and Larkin have been “very forthcoming.”

Lichter said it was hard to predict exact costs or timing, but that the MLP “is always revising as we meet milestones.” Lichter noted that $1.6 million is the “upper limit” for costs.

The MLP board also said in its email that the work by Charter Communications to install fiber in neighboring West Stockbridge, and by Comcast in nine other towns, will not affect Alford’s timeline or MBI support since those towns partially served by cable get funding from a separate MBI grant. Also, the MLP board pointed out that those cable companies will own those networks, whereas Alford’s will be owned and operated by the town.

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