Folks In Alford, Massachusetts, Finally See Bright End Of Crappy Internet Tunnel

On April 14th, folks in Alford, Massachusetts, gathered at their fire house to attend a presentation about the bright future of their connectivity. After a long journey to find better connectivity in the small western Massachusetts town, residents and businesses are now subscribing to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) Internet access from AlfordLink, their own municipal network.

Years Of Work

With only around 500 residents in Alford, it’s no surprise that big incumbents decided the lack of population density didn’t justify investment in 21st century connectivity. By 2012 and 2013, the community had had enough; they decided to pursue their own solution with a municipal network. Alford voted to form a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), the entity that that manages publicly owned networks in Massachusetts.

In addition to the $1.6 million the town decided to borrow to spend on fiber optic infrastructure, the town will also receive around $480,000 in state grant funds. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) is handling distribution of funds to Alford and other towns that have decided to use the funding to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure.

Alford, Blandford, and Shutesbury, are a few of the hilltowns contracting with Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) in Westfield. WG+E’s WhipCity Fiber began by serving only Westfield, but now contracts with other small towns to either assist them as they establish their own telecommunications utilities or to provide Internet access and operate a publicly owned network. In very small communities like Alford, they may not feel they have the resources or expertise to manage a gigabit network, but don’t want to relinquish control of their connectivity to an untrustworthy corporate incumbent.

Last year, Charter offered to take MBI funds and build a network in Shutesbury that the company would own and control. The town rejected the offer for the hybrid fiber coaxial network, choosing instead to borrow funding to pair with grants from MBI to build a network the city will own. Western Massachusetts communities have been treated poorly by Charter and others; they’d often rather cease doing business with them entirely.

Places like Shutesbury and Alford also understand the other benefits of public ownership. They want economic development, better connections for their schools, and the ability to control costs.

In the March 2018 Alford MLP Newsletter, the Board wrote:

The MLP has executed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with Whip City Fiber (WCF), the broadband arm of Westfield Gas + Electric (WGE), to operate AlfordLink and provide Internet service. Whip City Fiber plays this role in Westfield and has similar IGAs with a growing number of towns in Western Massachusetts that are building municipally owned FTTH networks. We are confident in their ability to serve Alford. 

Check out our interview with Aaron Bean and Sean Fitzgerald from WhipCity Fiber back in 2016 for episode 205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Alford On Fire

In January, WG+E installed a hut next to the fire house where the network equipment is housed and where AlfordLink connects to MassBroadband123, the state’s middle mile network. In order to allow residents to get a taste for their future service, they’ve lit up the network at the fire house and installed a Wi-Fi router.

"The hut is lit," said Peter Puciloski, the town's new chairman of the Municipal Light Plant. "We put in a router, so you can go and experience 1 gigabit. I've seen a bunch of people there downloading software rather than waiting at home."

At the April 14th open house event, WG+E representatives introduced the AlfordLink website, explained the steps to subscribe, and provided details on what services will be available. AlfordLink won’t include video services — only Internet access and phone — and part of the presentation discussed streaming versus cable TV.

They had a discussion about the expected roll-out plan, as many people are eager to sign-up. There’s been an issue with some of the poles in Alford because Verizon is dragging its feet on make-ready work and pole agreements. About 60 percent of make-ready work; as long as there are no “major catastrophes,” WG+E officials estimate the network to be completed and serving the community this fall.

Regardless of the delay, people in Alford are signing up. At last count before the open house, 102 premises had signed up. There are a total of 350 premises in Alford. 

At this time, symmetrical gigabit service will be the only speed tier available for $110 per month. Subscribers can add voice service for $12.95 per month.

Watch a video of the open house presentation from folks at WG+E:

Image of Alford town hall courtesy of Just the Berkshires.