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Tiny Mt Washington Builds Fiber-to-the-Home - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 212
Overlooked by the incumbent telephone company, Mount Washington in the southwest corner of Massachusetts is becoming one of the smallest FTTH communities in the country by investing in a municipal fiber network. A strong majority of the town committed to three years of service and the state contributed $230,000 to build the network after a lot of local groundwork and organizing. Select Board member Gail Garrett joins us for episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits to discuss their process and the challenges of crafting an economical plan on such a small scale. It turns out that the rural town had some advantages - low make-ready costs from the lack of wires on poles and no competition to have to worry about. So they are moving forward and with some cooperation from the telephone company and electric utility, they could build it pretty quickly. We also discuss what happens to those homes that choose not to take service when it is rolled out - they will have to pay more later to be connected. Read the rest of our coverage of Mt Washington here.
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Gail Garrett: I saw it as saving our town almost. The internet is everything at this point.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Gail Garrett joins Chris for this week's show. Gail is on the Select Board of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, a small community in the extreme southwest corner of the state. She's been instrumental in the town's initiative to deploy their own Fiber-to-the-Home network to improve local connectivity and to ensure the future of this small rural town. Mount Washington recently received a state grant to help fund their project. Due to the unique circumstances, they have had some special considerations and challenges. In this interview, Gail describes their journey to better connectivity and she also discusses the nuances of the New England community approval process. Now here are Chris and Gail Garrett from Mount Washington, Massachusetts.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm speaking with Gail Garret, a member of the Select Board of Mount Washington in Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.
Gail Garrett: Thank you.
Christopher Mitchell: Well Gail, as we were just talking about as we did a little pre-interview, you are probably from the smallest town we've had on the show. Can you tell us a little bit about Mount Washington for those who haven't been out there?
Gail Garrett: Mount Washington is located on the corner of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York, the southwest corner of Massachusetts. We only have about 145 full-time residents. About the same number of homes or buildings and many, many of our people here of the households, about 146 households, many of them are weekenders, summer people, part-time, we have some hunting cabins. It's a very small, unique community.
Christopher Mitchell: In Massachusetts parlance, a town doesn't just mean like Main Street and the houses right around it, right? You're a full geographic area that may have very rural pockets within it, right?
Gail Garrett: We are extremely rural. We have no cable out here. Our internet is very limited. We either have HughesNet, WildBlue, or WiSpring which is a radio frequency. My internet is on a radio frequency and I have one of the best internet on the mountain, but that is sporadic with the weather. We are very, very limited in TV and internet.
Christopher Mitchell: What are you planning to do about that?
Gail Garrett: Several years back we had a planned design by G4S to blanket the town with fiber. Each home would have it's own separate fiber strand and it will have the capability for IPTV and voice over telephone services. It's active Ethernet, star topology, so we have worked off of that initial plan. The initial plan, like I said, blanketed the town but unfortunately that would've cost us over $1.2 million to do. I took that plan and I modified the plan to eliminate all the areas where we really didn't need to go. For example, there's one area that's two miles out with really bad poles and would've cost us almost $100,000 to go to one entity, so we eliminated that. We eliminated areas where there were takers. About 60 people in our town don't want service, don't need service, or won't pay year-round the cost to support the system. For me, it was all about the budget. We did a survey and we asked who was willing to pay year-round about 100 bucks a month for internet and telephone. We found that out of about 146 people, 87 are willing to do that. By eliminating all the people that weren't willing to pay, we cut back on the construction cost and pole application fees, pole maintenance fees, and annual maintenance, but I would urge other towns to first figure out your budget and then figure out who's going to help you pay for it.
Christopher Mitchell: That makes a lot of sense. One of the questions I had is if I had a weekend place up there, I think I might be willing to consider paying. Do you have any weekend folks that are chipping in?
Gail Garrett: Very few people that are just weekenders are willing to pay this. It's about $120 a month, year-round, for internet and telephone. People that are real weekenders don't really want to pay that.
Christopher Mitchell: I suppose when you go to a place like Mount Washington you're not looking to sit inside and sit on the internet watching Netflix all day.
Gail Garrett: Exactly. You're looking for a break from it.
Christopher Mitchell: You had mentioned, and I think it's worth emphasizing, you feel like your plan and your approach is pretty specific to Mount Washington being a unique community. What additional factors should people be aware of in terms of just how unique Mount Washington is?
Gail Garrett: Well for example, an adjacent town to us has about ten times the number of residents we do. They have volume going for them which we don't. However, we do not have a lot of wires on our poles, so our make ready costs will be minimal. We also don't have competition, so I would be very concerned in other towns about their make ready cost and competition. What I did was I figured our budget and then I backed into it, what are we going to need people to pay to support it, and I had them sign a three year commitment at that rate to take the service and pay for the service year-round at that rate, and they also are contributing, each person is paying $300 as a startup fee toward their installation cost. Even people donated money to our cause. We are so unique, we have no competition, and we have little to nothing on our poles meaning we have a low make ready cost. Also, a big concern for other people needs to be undergrounds, we have some unknown cost in our construction and that could throw some extra numbers in there.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. When it comes to underground being up in your area, I suppose you can always run into granite which is a little bit of a hassle.
Gail Garrett: Oh yeah. We haven't -- Ledge could be an extra cost. Undergrounds that aren't viable will be an extra cost. We've figured into our plan an extra $26,000 for potential bad undergrounds. Make ready is a huge cost, a huge time constraint, and I know other towns, several. We are unique in having very little on our poles, having very little cost in that respect.
Christopher Mitchell: What happens if one of the people that's decided not to take service, a home that's not connected, not in the plan, they sell that home and someone moves in who would like to figure out a way of getting connected? Is there a process for that new family to get connected?
Gail Garrett: There will undoubtedly be a process and our plan does incorporate, it was designed for expansion and to cover all future homes and current homes. Odds are if they pay the same down payment and sign a three year agreement, they will be hooked right in. However, if they had the opportunity to hook in initially and didn't, they may have to pay an extra charge for what it's going to cost us extra for a special truck coming out to hook them in. We haven't quite finalized our policy about the future because you can't anticipate all the various scenarios that will occur. Undoubtedly we will be hooking people in after the fact and try to be as fair as we can to everyone.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things I'm curious about is the town meeting processes you tend to go through. I have to assume that the people in your town are very well informed about this. They took an active part in decision making I'm guessing. For people who haven't been out in New England, can you describe how you go about getting the community educated and making these decisions?
Gail Garrett: It's a brutal process.
Christopher Mitchell: I believe it. It's not pretty, but it's actually inspiring in a lot of ways.
Gail Garrett: I do not like the town meeting process, I have to tell you. We have very, very informed electorate, let me tell you. This town, people are very smart. They're very independent. We have the town meeting, the Select Board has to sign a warrant to call a town meeting and we sign a warrant and we put on the warrant what we want the town to approve or not. Often times we've gone to the finance committee to tell us whether they endorse it or not based on finances. Uniquely, I think we didn't, on broadband specifically on the plan that we had, the finance committee hadn't weighed in. I have to tell you, this was happening one way or another. I have a feeling that if would have happened regardless. For me it was just a matter of beating back the cost and not paying unnecessarily in cost. Anyway, we called the town meeting to endorse a plan which in essence says for about 21 miles of broadband, we're going to pay no more than 700 grand to install it and maintain it so we signed a warrant, called people to come in. We were going to take $250,000 from our savings, borrow $450,000 anticipating that we would get 230,000 from the state toward this. It was unanimously [no-glossary]passed[/no-glossary]. However, there was, and I'm summarizing that, but it wasn't quite in that form for the town meeting what happened. You can see on our archives, in our town archives on our website, you'll see what happened at the meeting. It's very interesting. Who shows up to the meeting, how people vote, I can pretty much can tell exactly who voted and how, who showed up and why, who will vote for something and who won't. It's very, very telling but it's very interesting. It required a two-thirds vote to pass it. Prior to the meeting it wasn't quite in that form and there was a floor amendment to add cost to the budget that I had designed. Now I had done the broadband plan and it didn't have a certain section in it for pretty much one house 1.2 miles out and the town voted to add that to the budget, which it wasn't in the budget. The reason it wasn't in the budget was because, to me, it was more appropriate to have that house join into the adjacent town and save us a significant amount of money. Certain people in town voted against economics, put it that way, to add that house in, which I wouldn't have done, personally. You literally have to beat the bushes out here. If you want something passed, you need to get your people to the meeting.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to politics, right?
Gail Garrett: Welcome to -- All politics is local politics. It's not for the thin skinned.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you mentioned is that this was going to happen one way or another and I wanted to dig into that because one of the things that I've come across and I know is untrue, but I want to get your reaction to it, from people often in capitals whether it's Washington D.C. or urban area like Boston, is that people in rural areas either have no use for or don't understand why the internet is important. You're suggesting that there was tremendous demand in Mount Washington. I'm just curious how you reconciled that kind of urban perception of rural demand.
Gail Garrett: Well, see many people talk about broadband being an economic issue. For us, there is no economy in Mount Washington. For me it was a matter of education. Our town, literally, is dying town. We have very, very few people here, few people moving in. We literally have no bodies to take jobs in town. I hold several hats. I'm a Select Board member, I'm the town clerk, I'm the Board of Registrars, I head that up, I'm on the school committee. We literally have no one to take these jobs, no bodies in town. I saw broadband as a way of helping us maintain our viability, pure and simple, and to bring people in to buy property here and have some bodies. I didn't see it as an economic thing because we have no economics out here. We have no businesses per se. I saw it as saving our town almost. To me, it's an educational thing. I think it is essential for education. The internet is everything at this point. It's education and I see it as the future of our school system. It was very favored here for those reasons.
Christopher Mitchell: Was this something that you had to do a lot of work educating people, is that what you're saying, or did people generally get it and you just had to figure out how to make a cash flow?
Gail Garrett: It was going to happen one way or another because most people wanted it and the most vocal people wanted it and the more progressive people wanted it. For me it was just a matter of making sure we didn't spend unnecessarily.
Christopher Mitchell: How is it that the state was contributing? Most states don't contribute to these sorts of local projects.
Gail Garrett: Governor Deval Patrick, the predecessor to Governor Baker, had designated about $50 million for a rural broadband and had set up the Mass. Technology Institute to effectuate that and distribute those funds. Money had already been earmarked at the state level to do this. Unfortunately, it got bogged down in administration along the way, and then with Governor Baker, I think he renewed the help to that organization and revamped the administration and really put it more on a fast track to help these local towns. Governor Baker, I have to say, has really partnered with towns in Massachusetts to help them and he had really changed the administration ad the Mass. Broadband Institute to help the towns do this. We had been earmarked for $230,000 out of that fund to help us and he kind of fast-tracked that because in essence, we're ready, willing, and able to do it.
Christopher Mitchell: Well then one other thing you needed was the permission of the legislature. Now I think for people who aren't always familiar, I had thought Massachusetts had more home rule characteristics. Why did you have to go to the legislature?
Gail Garrett: Because the state had enacted a statute that set, implied anyway, that we had to have a municipal light plan in order to do broadband, and we did not want to set up a municipal light plant because it would just add one more layer of administrative costs and administration. Again, we have nobody to do all these jobs. We try to do things at a much reduced cost, so we saw the municipal light plant as just more administrative cost and fees and effort and legal fees and unnecessary for our town. We applied to the state to exempt us from that requirement.
Christopher Mitchell: Great, and they obviously agreed and now you're able to move forward. What's the timeline for completing the network?
Gail Garrett: It all depends on how quickly National Grid and Verizon review our pole applications and tell us what we need to do to the poles to accommodate our lines. That could be six months worth of just National Grid and Verizon. I'm hoping that it's much less but we're allocating nine months to the total project. Three months is the maximum solely for our contractor once National Grid and Verizon do their thing. We've already hit a snag and the first snag has been that it turns out, we were looking at Corning fiber, which has a 25 year warranty.
Christopher Mitchell: Corning actually happens to come not far from you just in upstate New York.
Gail Garrett: Well, but it's going to take 52 weeks to get any Corning fiber. That's a problem. The next alternative is OFS which I understand also is near us. That'll take 28 weeks. Somebody needs to get on the production of fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's actually -- I would suspect your problem is that you're looking for a small order. I think they tend to prioritize, I'm guessing, orders fro Verizon, form Google, from AT&T, the big buyers and so when you're trying to get a small order they just fell like they can jerk you around a little bit.
Gail Garrett: Well you might have hit on to something that maybe we need to contact a larger company and get it through them and be part of their purchase. Luckily, Mass. Broadband has extra fiber available and might be able to sell us their excess. That's probably what we're going to need to do is hook up with someone of a much bigger order.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that might be. I'm purely speculating but that's something that I think we've seen in the past is that these places like Corning may just have to, everything that they produce for a certain period of time may be going toward a big order. It's the way the industry works sometimes, unfortunately.
Gail Garrett: Well maybe we'll be able to buy the excess from people which that would, win-win for everybody.
Christopher Mitchell: No doubt. Well thank you so much for coming on the show to tell us more about Mount Washington and your network.
Gail Garrett: Well thank you for having me.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris and Gail Garrett from the Mount Washington, Massachusetts Select Board discussing their Fiber-to-the-Home project. For more, check out the Mount Washington tag at muninetworks.org. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thank you to the group Roller Genoa for their song "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms" licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 212 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.