Fiber Network is "Game-Changer" in "Backwater" Massachusetts Town

Leyden is located in one of the most rural parts of northwestern Massachusetts, along the edge of the Berkshires tucked away in the valleys of the Green River bordering Vermont.

Though it is only 47 miles north of Springfield and 96 miles west of Boston, this town of about 800 residents is one of only a handful of municipalities in the entire Commonwealth that does not have any state routes running through it, similar to the islands of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard off the southeast coast of Massachusetts.

And while Leyden is not a geographical island, it has been a digital outpost barren of broadband. That is until now - with the birth of Leyden Broadband as the town is nearly done with the construction of a 35-mile Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

From DSL ‘Backwater’ to Fiber Haven 

“Without any major routes here, we get very little ancillary traffic through town. It’s kept us below the radar. We’ve always been a lightly populated hill town that doesn’t really offer a financial reward for the big telecom companies to come in with high-speed broadband,” Andy Killeen, chair of the Leyden Municipal Light Plant and volunteer head of the town’s fledgling Broadband Department, told us this week.

“Folks were running DSL but that worked pretty poorly. We are not close to the copper (DSL) hubs, which means you could pretty much handle email, but that was about it,” said Killeen, who owns and operates a home safety and security business in the nearby town of Greenfield.

The DSL days are over for residents in this 18-square mile town. Leyden may be a “kind of backwater town,” as Killeen put it, but the townspeople are Leydenites; not Luddites.

“We’ve gone from industry-trailing Internet [access] speeds to top-end network connectivity with gigabit speed that rivals anything you can get in Boston,” Killeen said, looking out of his living room window at the nearby mountain range as a bird streaked across the winter sky, his son cozied up next to him streaming a Disney Plus movie in 4K.

Killeen and his family aren’t the only ones in Leyden enjoying the new high-speed connectivity. Of the 343 households in town, 268 have already subscribed for service as construction crews are barreling toward the finish line. Nearly 180 of Leyden Broadband’s existing customers have signed up for phone and gigabit-speed Internet service at a cost of $99 a month while 88 customers have opted for Internet-only service for $85 a month.

Project planners assumed they would achieve a 70% take-rate before the network was built but are thrilled, of course, that the existing take-rate is 78 percent. At a Selectboard meeting in late January, Killeen happily reported that financial projections indicate the network will generate as much as $300,000 in revenue in its first year of operation.

Middle Mile to Last Mile

To understand how Leyden (pronounced Lie-den) got here, you’d have to go back to the early 2000’s when it became clear that “nearly 30,000 residents across western Massachusetts live on the wrong side of the digital divide,” as a Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University case study described the lack of high-speed broadband in a part of the state where “most can access the Internet only through satellite connections, DSL, or a dial-up telephone connection - suitable only for email and basic browsing. A market dominated by the major cable and telephone companies [had] failed to provide these citizens with what is fast becoming a basic need like electricity or water.”

That’s why in 2009, the state created the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) using federal economic stimulus money to help finance a $90 million MassBroadband 123 “middle-mile” network. It led to the construction of 1,200-miles of fiber infrastructure to connect anchor institutions (libraries, schools, hospitals, and government buildings) in 120 towns throughout western Massachusetts.

The following year a regional non-profit cooperative was formed known as WiredWest to build “last mile” high-speed broadband networks in the unserved and underserved communities in the Berkshires. About two dozen towns, including Leyden, joined and then formed their own municipally-owned utilities called Municipal Light Plants (MLPs).

In May 2017, Leyden received a $680,000 “Last Mile Program” grant from the state. Two years later, the town’s network design was finalized in December of 2019. Then, in January 2020, Westfield Gas & Electric - the city of Westfield’s gas and electric utility - received $10.2 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) auction to expand fiber networks in 20 nearby communities in western Massachusetts, including Leyden.

In July of 2020, the town put out a $1 million bond issue to fund the fiber drops and installation as Westfield Gas & Electric did the heavy lifting of building the network. Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric, operates as the Internet Service Provider (ISP). 

“I give Whip City a ton of credit,” Killeen said. “Their service team is really first rate. I mean, you go from dealing with a Verizon or a Comcast where it feels like you’re fighting the system the entire way to Whip City where it feels like they are on your side. It’s really refreshing and, quite honestly, that’s the way it should be.”

Game-Changing Network Lifts Real Estate Market

Even beyond the price, reliability, and broadband service that has come to town, the network, Killeen said, is “quite the game-changer.”

“Properties here in town that use to sit on market for years are now being scooped up within days of being listed,” he said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge of city-dwellers in search of more rural environs with plenty of social distance.  

“The timing of the roll out of our network and the way it dovetailed with the pandemic has really created an interesting situation for towns in western Massachusetts and it’s a positive thing for property values,” he said.

Not that Leyden is looking to leverage its fiber network to lure even more people and businesses to relocate here, as fiber networks in larger towns and cities have done.

“This is a close-knit community that attracts people who like the peace and quiet of a small community and nature. What you have now here is a very nice residential community with beautiful landscapes in close proximity to Greenfield and down into Pioneer Valley,” Killeen said. “The fiber network has really helped with making the town a great place to live.”

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Header image and in-line images from Wikimedia Commons by users John Phelan and ToddC4176 via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported