WiredWest towns debate smaller regional option

Tired of waiting for “last-mile” build-out

For the Bulletin
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

WENDELL – Officials from some 10 towns Thursday largely agreed they are tired of waiting for their “last mile broadband” build-out to begin, though no decision was made about how to move forward with Wendell’s proposal to form a smaller, regional broadband operation as an alternative to WiredWest.

Wendell Select Board Chairman Daniel Keller said the town had called the meeting to see if Wendell, Shutesbury, New Salem, Warwick, Colrain and Leyden were interested in forming a small regional network that might be approved more quickly for build-out by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) than the proposed WiredWest network of up to 33 member towns.

WiredWest’s business plan and operating agreement were challenged by MBI in December, and the cooperative and MBI are still negotiating terms of these plans.

Keller said the conversations about forming a smaller regional network “were born out of frustration and impatience” – a view shared by many other town officials present.

“Voters passed our debt authorization last year,” said Leyden Select Board member Jeffrey Neipp. “Now it’s just wait and see, wait and see, wait and see. We’re disappointed with WiredWest because we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t want to wait until 2018.”

“We’re the same as you,” said Colrain Select Board member Mark Thibodeau. “We’re not getting any younger. There are other options out there and we just need to find them.”

“We need broadband sooner rather than later,” said Colrain Select Board Chairwoman Eileen Sauvageau.

“I’m not in the same place, in terms of giving up on WiredWest,” said Shutesbury Select Noard Chairwoman J. April Stein. “I think there’s a lot of politics involved. I’m not sure forming a smaller, regional network would get us there any faster. I feel WiredWest has a lot to offer, and I feel WiredWest is the best option for us.”

Select Board member Wayne Hachey of New Salem said his town has put a lot of time into WiredWest and needs to push them to move faster. “We’ve been pushing this for eight years now, and I think it’s time the state move forward. We share a school, fire chief and town coordinator – and we’re starting to get a rift (between towns) that needs to go away.”

“The purpose of this meeting is not to argue against WiredWest,” Keller replied. “The purpose is to see if towns are interested in looking at other possibilities.” But several present argued in favor of staying with WiredWest, even as they wanted to be open to other options.

“We thought WiredWest has provided a lot of answers to our questions,” said Select Board Chairman Randy Gordon of New Salem. “We’d like to support WiredWest if it’s viable, but would like to look at other things, to keep as options.”

Douglas Tanner of Wendell said when the broadband committee considered a cluster-model regional broadband network, they considered the issue of home rule.

“Some (towns) will want a hybrid system, some will want fiber-to-the-home for everyone and some will want it only for subscribers. Some  want to subsidize (the service) so that everyone can afford it. Without home rule of the process, you would never have control unless everyone (in WiredWest) agreed to it.”

He said the Wendell broadband committee also wanted a limited-time contract of between three to five years, whereas the current WiredWest operating agreement calls for a 10-year commitment.

“We want to be able to revisit this in an effective way, at least in the beginning,” Tanner said. “It’s not to be down on the WiredWest concept and all the work that they did.”

Sue Cloutier of the New Salem Broadband Committee said she didn’t believe a smaller regional network is likely to get built out any faster than the proposed WiredWest network.

Gayle Huntress of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee said that Shutesbury, like Leverett, could “do this on our own, and the cost would be reasonable.” But for many other towns within WiredWest, it would be cost-prohibitive, because the subscription costs would be too high.

By staying in WiredWest, she said, “Shutesbury would be subsidizing the others.” She implied that having one network for both the larger and smaller towns, would bring more affordable subscription costs across the board.

Bill Stathis of Crocker said any regional network could be “four years old,” because there are so many towns in line.

But he added, “I believe there is a possibility for a small cluster of towns to move forward if others are bogged down in what they’re going to do.”

Both Stathis and WiredWest’s Jim Drawe  said they believe the MBI “pause” is not related to that agency’s business plan disagreements with WiredWest.

“It has nothing to do with anybody’s plans or non-plans,” said Drawe. 

Leverett Selectboard member Peter d’Errico said that before building the town-owned LeverettNet fiber optic network, a committee of about seven people met weekly for four years researching and putting their ideas together. “It needs that type of commitment,” he said. “It sounds to me like some people are waiting for somebody else to come in and tell you what to do.”

D’Errico and Leverett Finance Committee Chairman Tom Powers attended the meeting to answer questions about that town’s build-out. Powers recommended that towns vote to borrow the entire cost of their fiber optic build-out, and then get reimbursed by the state for its share of the cost.

Besides town officials from Wendell, New Salem, Shutesbury, Warwick, Leyden, Colrain and Leverett, broadband committee members from Charlemont and Plainfield also came to the Wendell meeting, as did representatives from WiredWest, Crocker Communications and Axia.