Middle-mile projects received most of the big broadband stimulus boost. To make it the last mile, and get service into the homes of rural residents, 47 communities in Western Massachusetts are working together.
How does a small town build a fiber network? With partners. The story of Powell, Wyoming, (population 5,500) recently profiled in the Daily Yonder, shows that it’s possible to overcome the challenges of size and geography and make such an ambitious leap in communications technology. Much of Powell’s success stems from having formed a strong public/private partnership (PPP) with two companies, US Metronets and Tri County Telecom.
PPPs are increasing in popularity as an affordable path to deploying broadband in times of shrinking budgets. This trend should accelerate due to publicity about the most famous PPP in the country at the moment involving Kansas City (Kansas and Missouri) and Google.
However, another type of partnership sharing the broadband stage is the multi-town or multi-jurisdiction coalition wherein several communities band together to build broadband networks collectively owned by all of their constituents. WiredWest is such a coalition, bringing together 47 small towns and townships in rural western Massachusetts.
These coalitions bear watching closely as an interesting dilemma unfolds with the many middle-mile broadband projects that received stimulus grant awards. The middle mile is like the veins and arteries that take blood to the rest of the body and back to the heart (the public Internet). Last mile networks are the capillaries that connect the middle mile with homes, businesses and other Internet users — carrying data to the fingers and toes.
Around 200 middle mile projects were funded to deploy hundreds or thousands of miles of fiber to reach various areas of the U.S. Many additional last-mile projects were awarded in different parts of the country. Unfortunately, it’s conceivable the twain shall ne’er meet. Western Massachusetts, for example, won a stimulus grant for over 1000 miles of middle-mile infrastructure but none for last mile.
The question is, what entities will create last-mile infrastructure to connect those in rural communities with these middle-mile networks? Often the middle-mile projects include running fiber to targeted libraries, hospitals and other institutions. But businesses, residences and other potential subscribers in those same towns are left out of the picture. Small towns such as Powell are still in danger of being ignored by service providers that can’t see how to make a profit.
Midway through the broadband stimulus program in early 2010, several western Massachusetts towns recognized this danger and decided to form WiredWest to take matters into their own hands. These communities believe “control of the network needs to stay in the hands of the community,” states Co-Chair and spokesperson Monica Webb, of Monterey, MA. “Private providers just cherry pick the best subscribers and offer empty promises to the rest of us.”
When Google announced its gigabit city initiative, WiredWest applied even though its lack of population density made it a long shot for winning. However, filing the application galvanized WiredWest to take action promptly and not wait to see whether it won or not. The group raised money through a Massachusetts Broadband Institute grant, regional planning agencies, individual and corporate donors and pledges of in-kind services.
WiredWest structured itself legally as a “cooperative of municipal light plants,” a designation created by a 100-year-old law that enabled towns to distribute their own electricity. This designation allows towns to own telecom services within existing legislative guidelines and use municipal bonds to fund the network, and it grants individuals and businesses tax deductions when they donate to WiredWest. WiredWest also can provide Internet access service without being required to provide cable TV services. Hilltown Community Dev Corp. is a second community co-op in the area and it is designated as a fiduciary able to apply for grants on WiredWest’s behalf. Once WiredWest officially launches this month, it will have the legal authority to apply for grants, contract with providers, and take other actions.
WiredWest early on took stock of its needs, learning how to recruit additional towns to join the coalition. “Of the 47 towns now in WiredWest, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Comcast are only in seven,” says Webb. “There are two or three WISPs, (wireless Internet service providers) but getting coverage into many places requires lots of towers and repeaters that makes this option expensive. Some towns can make the coverage-to-cost work, but others tried to no avail.”
Webb observed that a couple of towns have DSL service from one regional provider. But when the provider tries to go into a new town, Verizon undercuts them on price, therefore neutralizing any potential competition. “Verizon has created legions of people hungry for an alternative solution.”
WiredWest’s members have a common vision of improved economic development. Their proximity to major metro centers differentiates them from other rural populations. They have lots of second-home owners who want to telecommute, retirees who still want to be productive and are entrepreneurs-in-waiting, and a growing film industry that requires high bandwidth for post-production work and global collaboration. There are also many people wanting to move from manufacturing into knowledge-based industries. The lack of sufficient telecom infrastructure handicaps all of these constituents.
It is very likely that WiredWest will join with private sector partners, but communities are still weighing options on how to structure those relationships. They agree that the network should be open access to allow any company to provide all kinds of services over the network including basic Internet access. WiredWest will select partners based on their ability to help get the network financed, build it quickly and ensure its financial sustainability.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is keeping 47 independent communities unified and focused on the common broadband mission. “This will be cumbersome,” Webb admits. “But we have strong Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation. We’ll add to these and better define procedures such as who makes what decisions. WiredWest has a Board of Directors with one representative from each town. We elected a seven-member executive board to make smaller decisions and bring recommendations to the full board for the major decisions. They plan to hire someone to manage day-to-day operations.”
WiredWest recruited good advisors experienced with the various aspects of running a network in order to create good oversight, and marketed well to build strong positive public awareness that generates commitment from many potential subscribers. This is especially important for the success of the co-op because the law requires every town to hold two referendums to approve its entry into WiredWest. So far 17 towns have passed both referendums, and most of those remaining are expected to do so this year.
“If constituents want to ensure they have last-mile solutions that are future proof and universal, communities need to create coalitions that work either alone or with local providers,” concludes Webb. As we’ve seen since the founding of the republic, there is strength in numbers, and significant advantages, for communities that will band together.
Craig Settles, of Oakland, California, is an analyst and business strategist in the broadband industry.