Broadband for the rest of us? Towns look to Leverett and Ockers Company


Recorder Staff

Friday, June 13, 2014  (Published in print: Saturday, June 14, 2014)

CHARLEMONT — For western Massachusetts communities that want broadband Internet, Leverett selectmen’s Chairman Peter D’Errico can lay out a scenario their town officials would envy: How to build a high-speed network — “fiber to the premises” — for every home in town.

In 2012, Leverett voters made it possible by agreeing to pay for a 20-year, $3.6 million bond through a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion, even though it adds about $300 per year to the median tax bill for 20 years. D’Errico said townspeople wanted broadband so badly that, in a paper-ballot vote, 90 percent of annual town meeting voters supported it, backed by an 83 percent vote of approval for the debt exclusion at the ballot box. He said voter turnout for both the meeting and election were large.

D’Errico went over each step of the process for about 80 town officials at the Franklin County Selectmen’s Association meeting in Charlemont recently, starting with the town’s general frustrations over what he called “miserable phone service,” and ending with the expectation of high-speed broadband for the town’s 800 households by year’s end.

First, Leverett with Shutesbury tried to get Verizon and Comcast to extend service, but had little success in securing more Internet coverage. Next Leverett secured a $40,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and spent it on a network design, which showed residents how a town-owned network could be done.

“MBI joked it was the best $40,000 we’ve ever spent, because it got Leverett people thinking about how it could work,” said D’Errico.

D’Errico said he now pays about $90 per month for basic Internet satellite service and another $60 for his telephone service. He believes his payments for phone and high-speed Internet will be reduced after he can get both through broadband.

“Seventy-five percent of households in town, after paying the bond bill, will have money in their pockets, because of savings,” he said. “There’s also a huge benefit for the rental market and for home valuations.”

The original plan was to provide “fiber to curb” broadband, leaving homeowners to deal with actual house connections. But now “100 percent will have actual terminal connections to the home. If (residents) don’t want to buy the service, they don’t have to subscribe to it,” he said.

Because the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. is doing make-ready work on its utility poles for broadband connections to the grid, it has also made improvements to its own infrastructure in Leverett, which may mean fewer electrical outages, said D’Errico. “Even before we have service, we’re seeing economic benefits from this.”

D’Errico said this accomplishment in Leverett required political leadership and technical competence. “MBI can supply the technical competence. All you need is the political leadership,” he said. “If you’re going to have any form of a revenue bond — backed by an municipal tax bond — that has to be right up front. It has to be collaborative.”

But if Leverett has about 2,000 residents in 800 homes on roughly 34 miles of road, how would a town like Hawley — with 330 residents and 49 miles of road be able to afford this, asked Hawley Selectman Phil Keenan. “For us to float a ($3.6 million) bond would be unthinkable. Yet the town’s hopes for economic development are locked into something like this,” he added. “I don’t see any other way we could go.”

D’Errico said the Wired West strategy for “last-mile” broadband access wasn’t as clear-cut in the early days as it is now. He said Wired West was first talking about a “revenue bond” to be paid off from the resulting revenues from Internet service subscribers. “People have to know that a revenue bond may or may not provide sufficient revenue. If not, a tax plan is a backup.”

Recently, Wired West has gone to 26 of its member towns, explaining that it will need member towns to essentially “co-sign” for a bond bill that will make it possible for last-mile broadband, plus incentives to induce Internet providers like Comcast to extend service in the partially served towns.

“The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is about to make a transition to ‘the last mile,’” said D’Errico. “They talked about putting someone in place to chair that initiative and to have them placed in western Massachusetts. There’s momentum that’s happening this summer.”

State Rep. Stephen Kulik said the $50 million IT bond bill for last-mile broadband is now in the state Legislature’s conference committee, and that he is on that committee.

David Epstein of Wired West said there are a lot of advantages for contiguous towns to work together. He said Wired West originally thought its bond could be supported by the resulting revenue, “but at the end of the day, it’s going to be a high-cost project.”

He said the total cost to build out western Massachusetts with a “hybrid” of high-speed fiber and wireless Internet is going to be about $110 million.

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