Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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As the oldest son of the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie — the Town of Washington, Massachusetts’ most famous resident — built a name for himself as a singer-songwriter by letting folks know, “You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.”
But if you ask the town’s Broadband Manager Kent Lew, there was one thing that was not on the menu in Washington before last year: high-speed Internet connectivity.
That’s no longer the case as the small town of Washington (pop. 549) has been on the vanguard of rural communities in the hill towns of the Berkshires that have built out (or are in the process of building out) Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks to bring gigabit speeds and affordable connectivity for residents for decades into the future.
The Pandemic: Curse & Blessing
“On the eve the Governor announced the (pandemic) shut down in March of 2020, our first Fiber Service Area was ready,” Lew recalled in a recent interview with us. “It was tremendous that we were able to do this just as people really needed it.”
As one of dozens of Western Massachusetts towns working in partnership with municipal utility provider Westfield Gas + Electric (which operates Whip City Fiber) to build broadband infrastructure, it was in 2015 that Town Meeting voters authorized a $770,000 bond issuance to finance half the construction costs of the $1.47 million network. The other half came from state grant funding.
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.
Western Massachusetts stands as maybe the most dynamic place for municipal broadband at the present, with almost two dozen cities pursuing projects. And while the slate has many similarities between them, each has a unique starting point and has followed its own path along the way.
Cummington (pop. 800), which straddles the banks of the Westfield River thirty miles northwest of Springfield and twenty miles east of the New York border, has just completed its municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. It has been almost a decade in the making, and despite seeing its share of obstacles along the way, residents can now look forward to years of fast, affordable Internet access.
Stuck on DSL
Ten years ago, Cummington had no high-speed Internet access options. Verizon offered the only DSL service in town, and its network in the area remained a relic of upgrades focused not on residents there but in the population centers to the east. Only half the town was covered, relegated to download speeds in the single digits and upload speeds at a fraction of that. The rest of the town’s residents were stuck with satellite service, which was even slower and more unreliable with changing weather.
The story of broadband for western Massachusetts is a winding road. At the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the state of Massachusetts received initially funding for its MassBroadband 123 backbone network (currently, it’s operated by KCST USA, formerly Axia Networks), which would bring middle-mile infrastructure to schools and libraries in 120 towns and communities in the area (including a spur in Cummington [pdf]) by 2014. Residents, however, remained unconnected.