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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.
Last December we wrote about Connecticut’s long-awaited victory by court affirmation in the fight to let its cities attach to utility poles at no cost in pursuit of spurring municipal broadband efforts. A similar effort seems to have stalled in its neighbor to the north, with HD 4492 languishing in the Massachusetts Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.
The bill, “An Act To Establish Municipal Access To Utility Poles Located In Municipal Rights-Of-Way,” is simple. It modifies Chapter 166, Section 22a of the state’s General Laws to eliminate pole attachment fees for cities working to build broadband networks to reach “unserved or underserved areas” (as defined by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)), shifting the expense instead to the current pole owner(s). John Barrett introduced the bill and two dozen fellow legislators co-signed it. It calls for:
Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, for the purpose of safeguarding access to infrastructure essential to public health, safety and welfare, an owner of a shared-use pole and each entity attaching to that pole is responsible for that owner's or entity's own expenses for make-ready work to accommodate a municipality's attaching its facilities to that shared-use pole: a) For a governmental purpose consistent with the police power of the municipality; or b) For the purpose of providing broadband service to an unserved or underserved area.
Up in the Air
As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing. Washington and Massachusetts are on different coasts, but both states are working with publicly owned broadband networks to deploy emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Washington, a state-led initiative is deploying hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points with the help of community networks, including Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a statewide middle-mile network, and several Public Utility Districts (PUDs). And on the other side of the country, Massachusetts has enlisted the help of municipal network Whip City Fiber to establish Wi-Fi hotspots in communities with poor connectivity.
The drive-up public hotspots will allow residents of both states to complete online school assignments, apply for unemployment insurance, and connect with healthcare providers, among other essential tasks.
“We’ve all been in a position where we understand to connect to the world during this really challenging time, Wi-Fi is essential,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington Department of Commerce, during a livestreamed launch of the state Wi-Fi initiative.
Washington Partners with PUDs for Wi-Fi
The small town of Windsor is joining the list of communities in western Massachusetts who are taking measures to improve local connectivity with publicly owned Internet infrastructure. The town of fewer than 1,000 people anticipates connecting all residents and businesses before the end of 2019.
Grants Are So Good
Windsor is benefitting from a grant of more than $886,000 from the FCC Connect America Fund, to be distributed over a 10-year period. Six other Berkshire County communities will also receive funding from the FCC; Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) applied for the funding on behalf of the region’s communities. In total, the seven towns will receive more than $2.45 million during the next decade to improve local broadband. The Westfield utility has been working with its neighbors in recent years in different capacities, including as an ISP, network operator, and as consultants.
Community leaders originally estimated Windsor’s planned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network would cost approximately $2.3 million. Select Board Member Doug McNally said that the community may use the award from the FCC to help pay down debt to deploy the network or may be used directly to help residents who have long driveways, requiring more individual investment to connect to the town’s network.
Windsor also received approximately $830,000 from the state in 2017 and previously approved borrowing to fund deployment. Windsor had planned to work with the WiredWest cooperative, until the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) put up several hurdles that interfered with the cooperative’s ability to realize their business model. WiredWest has revamped what it plans to offer member towns and, according to McNally, Windsor may contract with the co-op for Internet access and operate the network.
If Windsor chooses WiredWest, subscribers could choose between symmetrical packages of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $59 per month or 1 gigabit per second for $75 per month. Voice service would cost an additional $19 per month. All subscribers also pay an additional $99 activation fee.
The people of Charlemont, Massachusetts, are ready to pay approximatly $1.5 million to own broadband infrastructure rather than shell over $462,000 to Comcast for cable Internet access in their community. At a packed December 6th town meeting, voters showed up to handily defeat the proposal from the cable giant and express their support for a publicly owned fiber optic network.
Making the Best Choice for Charlemont
According to Robert Handsaker, who chairs the Charlemont Broadband Committee, the standing room only crowd at the local school defeated the Comcast proposal by a 20 percent margin. He went on to state that the town already has a design prepared, which it developed with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E). WG+E has been working with approximately 20 western Massachusetts towns interested in publicly owned broadband networks in several different capacities, including consulting and design. Having developed their own network, WhipCity Fiber, the Westfield utility is now offering skills as a consultant and as a network operator to nearby communities.
The Comcast proposal required Charlemont to kick in more than $462,000 while only serving 96 percent of the community. Ownership of the infrastructure would have remained with the national company. The city has been exploring options for at least two years, after plans for the broadband cooperative Wired West changed. When voters at a 2015 town meeting voted to approve borrowing for the project, community leaders considered Leverett’s financing model, using moderate property taxes to fund the project.
The people of Egremont have had it with Charter Spectrum and their shenanigans. After the latest issue pushed them too far, the town’s Select Board voted to give the company the boot.
Charter Spectrum had proposed connecting 96 percent of Egremont’s households for approximately $1.185 million, the lion’s share to be funded by a Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) last mile grant. The company, however, had not calculated make-ready costs correctly until after making their proposal. After examining the situation in Egremont, Charter Spectrum has almost doubled the estimate for the project to $2.285 million.
The difference Charter Spectrum says, is due to the need to replace 150 poles, which they say are not tall enough to accommodate their infrastructure. Charter Spectrum puts the blame on local company Fiber Connect, which has been deploying fiber in Egremont and other Berkshire towns. The national company says that Fiber Connect’s fiber optic cable has filled any room on the poles for Charter Spectrum cables.
MBI isn’t willing to fill the $1.1 million gap created by Charter Spectrum and neither is the company. Peter Larkin from MBI attended the October 15th meeting and presented an MBI proposal, in which the town would pay for half of the gap and MBI would cover the remaining $600,000. Locals at the meeting were less than thrilled.
With a population of only around 1,200 people, the news from MBI topped off an already long and frustrating process to bring high-quality Internet access to the rural town. Egremont had planned to joined Wired West, the broadband cooperative of western Massachusetts towns, but later opted to work with the national cable provider. Ever since the decision, they’ve experienced delays in negotiations, often because Charter Spectrum has remained elusive about where exactly they plan to deploy and which premises would be left out.
Lobbyists from the cable and telecom industry succeeded in using the legislature to firm up their rural Massachusetts monopolies this session. Communities that rely on state funds for local publicly owned broadband infrastructure projects now face restrictions on the reach of their high-speed networks.
A Long Trip Through the Legislature
Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development bill includes a provision designating funding for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development for broadband deployment. The agencies distribute the funds to various communities where residents and businesses plan to improve their local connectivity. Approximately 20 towns have decided to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, including Alford, Otis, and Mount Washington, to name a few. Others are taking offers from Comcast and Charter, which will build out networks to more premises with state funding.
Many of the rural communities who are going with the publicly owned option want to connect households and establishments within the town proper, but also what they describe as “edge” properties — those beyond town limits but have no other choice for broadband. Edge properties in western Massachusetts typically don’t have access to anything better than expensive and unreliable satellite or dial-up. Often, there are only a few “edge” properties in each community, but neighbors don’t want to leave anyone behind.
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.
After a long and arduous process, the folks in Mount Washington, Massachusetts, were finally able to light up their publicly owned fiber optic network last week. According to resident and Select Board Chair Eleanor Tillinghast, “We are thrilled. We’re going to be the envy of everyone.”
It's Finally Here
As we reported last month, the community was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to finish up the last steps to begin connecting subscribers from the town's 146 premises. Approximately 100 are connected and will take services from local Internet service provider Crocker Communications. In addition to providing Internet access, the ISP will handle billing for the city, provide 24/7 tech support for subscribers, and monitor the network. The infrastructure will be maintained by the company that built it for the city, NextGen Group. Mount Washington owns the infrastructure.
Gigabit connectivity is available, but most subscribers have opted for 500 Megabits per second (Mbps). All speeds are symmetrical, which makes Mount Washington’s network valuable as an economic development tool. Community leaders are already seeing in increase in real estate transactions that they relate to the new network. “People may have ruled Mount Washington out before,” Select Board Member Brian Tobin told the Berkshire Edge. “But we just catapulted ahead of other towns in terms of amenities.” As a potential quiet retreat for New Yorkers located in the Taconic Mountains, Tobin and Tillinghast expect to lure more urbanites who want to work remotely for part of the week. Tobin also has a Manhattan apartment and says that his Internet access speeds in the city are only about 117 Mbps download with slower upload speeds.
A Long Process That's Paid Off
Mount Washington, Massachusetts, is set to light up its new Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network this month. By “building our own Fiber-to-the-Home broadband network, we are taking an important step in securing our community’s long-term vitality and sustainability,” says Selectboard Member Gail Garrett.
Mount Washington Recap
Mount Washington is nestled within the forested Taconic Mountains area located in the southwest corner of the state. The roughly 150 full-time residents have been frustrated with the lack of connectivity. "Everybody's had it with their current connections” said Garret and believes the town “deserves the same opportunity to connect to the internet as those in larger communities.”
The final estimates for the network came in at $603,000 but the town planned for any unanticipated make ready or dig costs and prepared for a high estimate of $650,000. To fund construction, Mount Washington authorized the use of $250,000 from their stabilization fund in 2015, received $230,000 in federal and state funds from the Massachussetts Broadband Institute (MBI) earlier this year, and established a plan to borrow the remaining $400,000 through a state loan program. This spring, received an additional $222,000 grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which will allow them to pay down the debt sooner and have the network paid off within five years.
The FTTH network is set to provide residents who opted in, over 60 percent of the town, with up to 1 gigabit of upload and download speeds. To opt in, residents deposited $300 per household and committed themselves to three years of data and telephone service on the FTTH network.