Leverett, Massachusetts, Ponders Community-Owned Network

Leverett, Massachusetts, is one step closer to a community owned FTTH network. The town of 2,000 will have weekly public information meetings until the Annual Town Meeting scheduled for April 28, 2012. If the required $3.6 million funding is approved at the meeting, the city will issue a Request For Proposals to build the network.

The 1 gig network is slated to be an aerial build, except where existing utilities are underground, in which instances, fiber cable will also be placed underground. Leverett plans to use a $40,0000 planning grant, obtained from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, to hire G4S Technology to design the last mile fiber-optic network to connect to MBI's stimulus-funded middle mile. The middle mile project is scheduled to be completed in June, 2013, and Leverett plans to be ready to connect soon after. The goal is to have every home connected with fiber by 2014.

Whereas most communities explicitly choose not to use tax revenue to pay for a community network, Leverett's present plan is for a slight increase in local taxes to assist in the financing. The town will borrow the amount necessary to build the network and pay it back over 20 years using a combination of tax revenue and revenues from the new broadband service. Peter d'Errico, Chair of the MBI Grant Broadband Committee observes that homeowners' net spending figures will decline once the system is in place. From the article:

A town survey concluded a municipal network could offer better Internet and phone service at far cheaper rates than private providers, he said.

"It will be a little more on their tax bill and a lot less on their Internet bill, so overall they will be pay less," d'Errico said.

Leverett Map

According to the Broadband Committee, approximately 37% of households in Leverett use slow, sketchy satellite, 23% use dial-up, 20% are on DSL, 14% use wireless, and 6% of households have no internet access. Some households, although theoretically accessible via satellite, never get a connection because of trees and the picturesque, hilly Massachusetts countryside.

Leverett is situated in the Five College area of Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. The town is rich in history, but now finds that, because of their disconnect from reliable internet, they are losing opportunities usually found in towns that neighbor such academic centers. Housing sales are impacted, as are renting opportunities. From the article:

"Junior faculty, graduate and undergraduate students that normally would be very interested in renting in a lovely town like Leverett are just unable to do it," said [Richard Nathhorst, a member of Leverett's Broadband Committee], "To be able to work or complete their studies they need access to the Internet."

In addition to lack of internet access, the town has had longstanding problems with their telephone service, provided by Verizon. Last year, the State Department of Communications ordered the telco to assess and repair the telecommunications infrastructure in nearly 100 western Massachusetts communities, including Leverett.

"People are realizing that private companies are not making enough money moving into rural areas," d'Errico said of the capital investment needed to bring broadband to smaller communities. "The only other alternative available is a municipal network."

Leverett's plan is to contract with a two separate entities, one to provide network management and services and another to provide infrastructure maintenance.

Wired West

We have previously reported on WiredWest, a consortium of towns in western Massachusetts that have come together to form a regional network. WiredWest has been instrumental in organzing local communities, including Leverett, to work together on a jointly owned, open access FTTH network connecting everyone. The Wired West efforts have included $100,000 worth of mapping, $30,000 in engineering, and $20,000 in marketing, project management and financial services over the past six months. However, most Wired West communities are seeking funding for the network that would not require borrowing backed by the local tax base. Leverett says it is committed to further collaboration with Wired West, but its present plan involves finding a single provider to operate on the network rather than the open access approach embraced by Wired West. Some recommend that new networks start with a single service provider to get up and running before later inviting additional service providers to the network. Working with an experienced service provider right away can offer more confidence to potential investors.

Residents have responded favorably to the proposal, including the increased taxes, and officials expect a high take rate. Such an approach is much more consistent with the spirit of local self-reliance than those who continue holding out hope for more federal grants. Jason Whittet, Deputy Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, is officially on board with public ownership of broadband:

"What you are seeing come to fruition with this Town Meeting is a town that takes a lead in creating its own destiny when it comes to broadband."

Leverett wants to be the leader and they clearly have the ambition to realize that goal:

"We are showing the way," d'Errico said. "The network we build will become a template for other towns."

The last of three scheduled public meetings with the Broadband Committee to discuss the proposed project will be Sunday night, April 15th at the Town Hall, 9 Montague Road at 7 p.m.

A local ABC station reported on Leverett's plan: