June 2014: Status Update
Considerable progress is being made toward financing last-mile broadband in western Massachusetts. After a long period of little activity in the state legislature, the IT Bond Bill is on the verge of passage, with $50 million allocated to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). WiredWest has been working on a mechanism for the borrowing authority of its member towns to support a bond issued by WiredWest for an additional $50 million needed for the project. In support of that objective, MBI retained the services of Gregory Sandomirsky, a leading municipal finance attorney with the Boston firm of Mintz Levin. He held meetings and conference calls with several members of WiredWest’s Executive Committee and its Executive Director. As a result, a step-by-step implementation plan for such an issuance has been drafted which WiredWest will be reviewing with its Board of Directors and town officials.
WiredWest continues to explore possible project funding through the Connect America Fund. In March it previously submitted an “Expression of Interest” to the Federal Communications Commission for what are called “experiments” in rural broadband deployment. Further details about the program and procedures to submit proposals are expected to be announced by the FCC in July. A key issue underlying the financing of a regional broadband network is the financial viability of such a project.
WiredWest has developed and continues to refine a detailed pro forma model. Consultants to MBI have also developed models, and MBI is working closely with WiredWest to develop a consensus model that ideally will serve as the basis for development of a regional network.
The Board of Directors of WiredWest had previously voted to assess a $1,000 fee for FY2015 (beginning July 1) from each member town for legal and other expenses primarily related to the financing. Member towns were asked to place an article for that amount on their Annual Town Meeting warrants, or to otherwise allocate the funds. Of WiredWest’s 42 member towns, all agreed to the fee except Leverett, which is building its own broadband network, and Alford, which is considering doing so. As a result these towns will withdraw from WiredWest, as per the Cooperative’s bylaws. There are also new towns working on joining.
WiredWest has drafted a letter which it is asking each Select Board in its member towns to send to MBI. The letter notes that people in unserved western Massachusetts towns are “frustrated by the continuing lack of adequate internet service.” It expresses continuing support for “WiredWest as our designated organization to implement and operate a regional last-mile fiber broadband network.” And it urges MBI “to work closely with WiredWest so that upon passage of the bond bill, construction of the network can begin as expeditiously as possible.”
WiredWest Town Liaison Reva Reck continues to be on health leave, but making progress. To help fulfill her duties, the Board elected Shutesbury Town Administrator Becky Torres to the Executive Committee.
March 2014: Status Update
WiredWest is actively pursuing financing from federal and local sources, seeking to raise about $50 million to match the approximately $50 million for last‐mile broadband in the IT Bond Bill pending in the state legislature.
The Federal Communications Commission requested “Expressions of Interest” for what it calls, “experiments” in rural broadband deployment by “non‐traditional” entities. These will be funded from the Connect America Fund (CAF), success or to the Universal Service Fund, which subsidized telephone service in high‐cost rural areas with a small charge on the bills of all telephone users. On March 7th WiredWest filed a detailed letter with the FCC expressing its interest in the program and explaining its unique qualifications to participate. You can read it here. The FCC will review the filings it received, then set a budget for such experiments and the procedures to apply for funding. Proposals are anticipated to be due this summer and awards to be made in the fall. WiredWest Executive Director David Epstein and Board Chair Monica Webb attended an FCC seminar in Washington about the CAF program, which emphasized the importance of community involvement.
Local participation in the financing of the last mile is essential. Toward that end WiredWest is considering issuance of a bond, which as a Municipal Lighting Plant Cooperative it is legally empowered to do. The bond would be backed by WiredWest’s member towns that choose to participate. To explore how the state might support such an issuance, WiredWest’s Executive Director and some members of the Executive Committee consulted with State Representative Steve Kulik and Assistant State Treasurer Colin MacNaught, who expressed his interest in continuing the discussion.
To explain its progress and these financing options, WiredWest is holding a series of information meetings in member towns for Select Board and Finance Committee members from surrounding towns. The response at these meetings to WiredWest’s financing proposals thus far has been very favorable.
One issue that needs to be resolved for the towns to back a WiredWest bond is how to allocate liability among the towns. This has been the subject of considerable discussion at Executive Committee and Board meetings, and Finance Chair Drawe has prepared extensive materials to support that evaluation. While a methodology has not been agreed upon, everyone does agree that it must be fair, and that it must stand up to the stringent due diligence to which the bond issuance will be subject.
To support its assessment of a $1,000 annual fee for Fiscal Year 2015, unanimously approved by the WiredWest Board of Directors, the Executive Committee prepared a justification for the funds and provided it to Board members and alternates to make available to officials in their towns.
Executive Director Epstein has continued to participate in MBI’s “kitchen cabinet” of advisors on deploying the last mile, although its progress has been slowed by Judy Dumont’s departure from her post as MBI’s Director. Epstein met with Philip Holahan, Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel of Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, MBI’s parent organization, and who is now acting as interim Director of MBI. A follow‐up meeting has been scheduled with Holahan, Epstein, Board Chair Webb and several people from WiredWest and MTC/MBI, as well as municipal finance expert Gregory Sandomirsky of the Boston law firm Mintz Levin, who counsels MTC/MBI on such matters.
In response to articles in the Berkshire Eagle and Greenfield Recorder about MBI completing its middle mile project, Steve Nelson wrote Op‐Ed columns in those papers advocating for WiredWest’s role in the roll‐out of the last mile, which were well received. WiredWest is pursuing other opportunities to tell its story through the media.
WiredWest continued to make progress toward connecting its ISP customer George Propane in Goshen. To stay focused on its last‐mile mission, the Executive Committee agreed to oversee completion of the installation but then find an ISP to take over servicing the client, and not to pursue additional customers at this time.
WiredWest Vice‐Chair and Town Liaison Reva Reck has taken a medical leave of absence to deal with a serious health problem. To help meet her responsibilities, the Board elected Becky Torres, Town Administrator of Shutesbury and town delegate to WiredWest, to the Executive Committee. We all wish Reva well and look forward to her return.
January / February 2014: Status Update
WiredWest continues to engage with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) about deployment of last-mile broadband in western Mass. WiredWest Executive Director David Epstein participates in MBI’s “kitchen cabinet,” a group formed by MBI to assist it in formulating its last-mile strategy and which includes several consultants with expertise in broadband, as well as executives of MBI and its parent organization, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
WiredWest has been monitoring the progress of the IT Bond Bill, H.3770, which includes $50 million for MBI for last-mile construction. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in November and referred to the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing by the Committee.
Even with the passage of the bill, another $50 million or so will be required to build and launch the last mile. There will likely be a need for local participation in providing some of that additional funding. Toward that end, WiredWest’s Executive Director and Legal/Governance Chair, met with MBI Director Judy Dumont and other members of her team, along with their bond attorney and WiredWest’s project counsel to explore how WiredWest’s organizational structure and powers as a Municipal Lighting Plant Cooperative might support issuance of bonds by WiredWest and/or its member towns to help finance the last mile.
Members of the WiredWest Executive Committee subsequently met with a bond attorney who provided further insight into bonding strategies, including a mechanism whereby town bonds would be used to back up a WiredWest bond but would not require towns to make any payments on debt service except in the case of WiredWest falling short in its ability to do so.
The Executive Committee is planning to conduct a series of regional meetings with Select Board and Finance Committee members to solicit their input on local participation in last mile financing. It is in the process of developing a possible methodology for apportioning each town’s share of any such participation.
WiredWest has been planning for possibly applying to the Broadband Loan Program of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a result of the compromise budget deal in Congress, RUS is only expected to have less than $40 million to lend this year, and with other applicants likely to seek those funds, and given the significant time and resources required to complete an application, RUS may no longer be a promising source of funding for WiredWest.
However, the Federal Communications Commission is about to launch what it calls some “experiments” in deploying broadband in rural areas under Phase II of the Connect America Fund, with additional funding to be made available later through a national competitive bidding process based in part on these trials. Phase I provided funding solely to telephone companies to deploy broadband, but Phase II funds could be made available to other entities, perhaps including municipal cooperatives. WiredWest submitted a Letter of Comment to the FCC supporting the program and opening it to other entities, and will submit an Expression of Interest to participate in the experiments scheduled for 2014, and ultimately in CAF Phase II.
In January WiredWest convened a meeting of its Cable Towns Caucus, comprised of six member towns partially served by a cable operator offering high-speed internet service. The towns reported on their ongoing discussions with Comcast on building out the unserved areas of their towns and the cost of doing so, some of which might be provided with funds from the IT Bond Bill. A draft Policy Statement in support of the Cable Towns, which had been approved by the WiredWest Executive Committee, was discussed and with some additional changes will be presented to the Board for its approval.
WiredWest continued to make progress toward connecting its ISP customer George Propane in Goshen, and is seeking to identify other possible customers.
At its meeting on December 7, the Board unanimously approved an annual fee of $1,000 payable by each town for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins July 1. If they have not already done so, Board members are reminded to inform their town Select Boards and Finance Committees of the fee, so that it can be included in the warrants or town budgets for annual town meetings this spring. WiredWest did not request an annual fee for FY 2013 or 2014, but the funds are needed now for increasing operational expenses, which include fees for corporate counsel, bond counsel, other consulting and professional services, and other expenses necessary for moving the last mile project forward at this critical time.
December 2013: Status Update
WiredWest continues to focus our strategy and efforts on four key areas:
1) Supporting the passage of the IT bond bill 2) Partnering with MBI on developing the last-mile network 3) Seeking the additional funds needed for its construction and operation 4) Working closely with our member towns to assure local participation in the project
IT Bond Bill: The IT bond bill was taken up the the House Ways and Means Committee on November 19th. At the initiative of Vice Chair Rep. Steve Kulik, $10 million was added to the $40 million originally provided in the bill for building a last-mile network in western Massachusets. Some of that additional funding may be used to incentivize Comcast to build out its infrastructure in six towns currently partially served by cable, so as to connect the remaining homes in those towns. The Committee reported the bill out favorably that day and it was sent directly to the full House, which redesignated it as H.3770 and passed it unanimously. It was then referred to the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets. WiredWest is staying in touch with our Senators from the region on the progress of the bill, which should be taken up in January.
MBI Partnership: David Epstein, WiredWest’s Executive Director, attended a meeting on November 18th with Massachusetts Broadband Institute Director Judy Dumont and her “kitchen cabinet.” This is a group formed by MBI to assist it in formulating its strategy for the last mile, and includes several consultants with expertise in broadband, as well as executives of MBI and its parent organization, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. WiredWest has a seat at the table in these discussions through David, who participates in two weekly scheduled calls with the kitchen cabinet and is also in regular direct contact with Judy. He and WiredWest’s outside counsel Diedre Lawrence, of the Boston firm Rubin and Rudman, have been invited to a meeting at MBI, expected to be held later this month, to discuss how the legal structure and powers of the WiredWest Municipal Lighting Plant Coop and its member MLPs might be utilized to further the last-mile project.
Funding: The WiredWest Executive Committee continues to work on its application for funding from the Broadband Loan Program of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. MBI has indicated that it does not intend to submit an application to RUS, so WiredWest will be the applicant on behalf of most or all of the 45 unserved towns in western Mass. The federal Farm Bill, which defines the policies of the RUS Broadband Loan Program, is presently under consideration in Conference Committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, with a new reconciliation deadline of January 31st, 2014. The funding for the RUS Broadband Loan program is contained in the annual Agriculture Appropriations bill, which is sometimes passed within an Omnibus Appropriations bill. We are waiting to hear about progress on that front, and advocating for reasonable funding levels.
Town Participation: WiredWest convened a meeting on November 21st at the Buckland Town Hall with representatives of four towns partially served by cable (two others did not attend). In addition to WiredWest’s Executive Director and three members of its Executive Committee, attendees included the Select Board chair from Buckland, a Select Board member from Shelburne, the town administrator from Conway, the chair or a member of the Internet/cable/technology committees from those towns and Northfield, as well as several area residents and business owners. After presentations and discussion about the situation in their towns and their relationships with Comcast, the group asked WiredWest to form a “Cable Town Caucus” to represent the interests of those towns to the legislature, to develop a consistent message to be approved by Caucus members and the WiredWest Board of Directors, and for the uncabled and partially-cabled towns to speak with a one voice through WiredWest. It is expected that the Caucus will meet in January.
Additional recent activities:
- With unanimous approval of the Board, WiredWest welcomed a new member to the Executive Committee, Dan Jacques, a Montgomery Selectman and professional construction project manager
- Continued to refine the detailed WiredWest pro forma
- Signed a contract with our first ISP customer, George Propane of Goshen, for 50mbps service
- Heard presentations from two organizations about alternate financing options
- Continued to communicate with the media and our state legislative delegation
November 2013: Status Update
The prospects for providing residents and businesses in western Massachusetts with high-speed internet and other broadband services were significantly enhanced this spring when Governor Deval Patrick filed an IT bond bill with the state legislature that included $40 million for last-mile broadband infrastructure. The funds are to be administered by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which is completing a middle-mile broadband network to serve community anchor institutions in western and central Massachusetts, and to provide interconnection points for a future last-mile network. While the bond funds are only part of what is required to implement the last mile, a project estimated at $100 million, they can be leveraged to acquire the balance of the funding.
In response to this development, WiredWest is focusing our strategy on four key areas:
1) supporting the passage of the IT bond bill
2) partnering with MBI on developing the last-mile network
3) seeking the additional funds needed for its construction and operation
4) working closely with our member towns to assure local participation in the project
In support of this strategy, in September the WiredWest Board of Directors agreed unanimously that we retain David Epstein on a contingent-fee basis as Executive Director of WiredWest, reporting to the Executive Committee. David is a seasoned telecommunications executive who has worked with MBI and has an excellent relationship with its Director, Judy Dumont. You can read more about David’s background here.
IT Bond Bill: Members of the WiredWest Executive Committee testified in support of the bill, H.3330, before the Joint Committee on Regulatory Oversight on June 11, and before the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets on September 18, at which time they also submitted about 300 letters in support of the legislation from citizens, businesses, Select Boards and other organizations in our towns. Both committees reported the bill out favorably.
MBI Partnership: Because of MBI’s invaluable experience with building the middle mile and its expected role in administering the bond bill funds, WiredWest recognizes that it is vital we work with MBI on the last mile. David and members of the Executive Committee have met with MBI to discuss how our two organizations could partner on the last-mile project. While no formal commitments were made by MBI or MTC, our ideas were well received. Since then David has continued to interface with MBI on an ongoing basis, and regularly attends our Executive Committee and Board of Directors meetings.
Funding: The most likely source for most (but not all) of the remaining funding is the low-cost Broadband Loan Program of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a cooperative of 42 rural towns, WiredWest believes we are the most appropriate entity to apply for those funds. The Executive Committee has developed a detailed project plan for completing the complex RUS application, and individual members of the Committee have begun work on their assignments under that plan.
Additionally, under David’s direction WiredWest is exploring how we might attract capital from the private sector. Both the bond bill and RUS funds must be used for construction, but not operation, of the network. A private sector partner potentially could provide those funds by connecting customers to the last mile and delivering services to them. Likewise, we are evaluating how we might utilize our authority under state law as a Municipal Lighting Plant Cooperative to issue bonds, and preliminarily discussing what financial stake, if any, our member towns may have in the project.
Town Participation: WiredWest is the entity designated by our member towns to bring broadband to their citizens and businesses. We continue working with our members to assure that, through WiredWest, their voice is heard in deliberations about the last-mile project and they play a substantive role in the development and operation of the network.
We will keep you posted on the developments over the next few months, which we expect to be significant, and which should give us a more definite time frame for delivering service.
August 2013: Status Update
August will be the WiredWest Cooperative’s second anniversary. It has been a busy two years that included completion of the following network planning tasks:
- Creation of a map database of utility poles, roads and structures
- High level network design and cost estimates
- Market Research
- Financial modeling and financing strategy development
- Economic impact study
- Development of printed materials
- Maintenance of a marketing and communications platform
- Survey of demand in each town
These tasks and other efforts were undertaken to provide the requisite information for the proposed WiredWest last-mile network to seek financing. The market research, economic impact study and demand survey efforts provided detailed information on the opportunity and impact on the regional economy. The map database, high level network design and cost estimates provided crucial planning and cost information. All of these efforts provided direct and indirect input for the financial modeling.
The work completed confirmed the proposed WiredWest network will be a significant and complex endeavor with a total estimated cost of $100 million and a planning and buildout timeline of at least two years. Financing the project will likely entail a combination of financing resources, including state grants, low-interest government loans, private capital, and bond issuance by the Cooperative.
The economic impact of the proposed WiredWest network to the region is substantial. A municipal network could retain up to $75 million per year in telecommunications services revenues alone, in the 45 Western Massachusetts towns underserved by broadband. This includes $50 million in revenues for service that is paid to service providers and leaves the region each year.
Additionally, this type of network will enable the growth of existing and new businesses, and create local jobs–from the network itself, from expanded business hiring, and from increased household spending. It will increase the revenue output of local businesses, and create an estimated additional $1.8 million in tax revenues for local and state governments.
The work completed by the grant also showed strong demand for the proposed network in WiredWest member towns—especially towns without cable broadband service. The Market Survey, completed in March, 2012, provided valuable information on local demographics; cost, use and satisfaction of existing offerings; and feedback on potential price points.
In March of 2013, there was some good news relating to financing a last mile network in underserved towns, when the Governor filed a state IT bond bill that includes $40 million to go towards last mile broadband infrastructure. The bill is currently working its way through the legislature. If successful, The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will oversee the administration of those funds, and in anticipation of that, they are working on a detailed plan for the project, including a buildout timeline. MBI and WiredWest have met to discuss how each organization’s strengths could be leveraged in a last-mile network partnership, including raising the additional funds needed to complete a regional fiber network in western Massachusetts towns unserved or underserved by broadband. We will keep you posted on the developments and how you can help to make sure this happens as soon as possible.
January 2013: Status Update
2012 was a busy year for WiredWest that included the addition of 16 new towns to the Cooperative, bringing the current membership to 42 towns eager to work together to create a long-term, comprehensive solution to the problem of inadequate broadband access.
Regular meetings of WiredWest’s organizational bodies were conducted throughout the year, with Board of Directors meeting monthly, Executive Committee meeting weekly and sub-committees meeting as needed.
Significant work was undertaken in 2012 to enable financing and buildout of the network. That work was made possible by grants from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Central Berkshire Fund, in addition to support from donations, Cooperative membership fees, and thousands of volunteer hours.
In the spring of 2012, WiredWest hired Market Street Research to conduct a comprehensive market survey in our member towns. The survey provided detailed information on residents’ satisfaction and usage of existing services, and demand for new services. The results indicated strong demand for the network across the region, and they are being used to develop service offerings and support our pro-forma financial statements.
In the fall of 2012, WiredWest launched a Support Card Campaign in its member towns. Local residents and businesses were asked to complete Cards to help WiredWest determine the level of interest for services in each town. The information will be used in network design and to provide assurances to potential financing sources. The campaign is continuing into the first quarter of 2013 and residents and businesses that have not yet completed a Card are urged to do so here as soon as possible.
WiredWest has created comprehensive pro-forma financial statements with input from municipal fiber network operators and appropriate financial expertise. The leadership team has met with a number of public and private financing sources and advisors to refine our financing strategy and put the project on track for financing in 2013.
To complete the engineering work required for financing, a database of detailed maps for the WiredWest towns was created. Potential network distribution locations in each town were also visited and evaluated for their suitability.
To complete the engineering, WiredWest issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for high level network design and cost estimation. The Matrix Design Group was chosen to complete the contract, and have provided WiredWest with their final report and potential network designs. We are evaluating the options presented to create a final estimate for use in the financial statements.
FY 2013 Plans
WiredWest will be focused on finalizing the business plan, with a particular focus on the pro-forma financial statements, final network design and other information needed for financing, including the final numbers for the Support Card campaign.
WiredWest will also continue working with public and private financing sources to determine the best and most expedient strategy for financing the network. We will also continue to solicit grants and donations for interim funding.
In addition, WiredWest will be working on an economic impact study to quantify the regional economic impact of the network which will be important to garnering grant support.
August: Status Update
WiredWest Communications Cooperative Corporation celebrated its first official anniversary in August amid key efforts to bring the network to fruition.
The WiredWest Coop was formed on August 13, 2011 by 22 Western Massachusetts towns that had voted to create Municipal Lighting Plant (MLP) departments. The MLP legislation, Chapter 164 of Massachusetts General Laws, is over 100 years old, and was originally created to enable towns without electricity to build their own electric systems. In 1996, the capacity to offer telecommunications service was added to the legislation.
Over the past 12 months, an additional 16 towns have formed MLP departments and joined WiredWest, bringing the Cooperative membership to 37 member towns eager to have the state-of-the-art WiredWest fiber-optic network built.
Significant work has been undertaken to create a comprehensive business plan that will enable financing of the project. That work was made possible by grants from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and the Central Berkshire Fund – in addition to donations, cooperative membership fees, and thousands of volunteer hours.
The first major endeavor was creating a GIS map database of all utility poles, structures and roads in WiredWest towns for engineering use. Potential network distribution locations in each town were also visited and evaluated.
In January, WiredWest issued a Request for Information (RFI) for Engineering Services, and more recently, Request for Proposal (RFP) for high level network design and cost estimation. For the recent RFP, 12 responses were submitted by experienced American fiber network engineering firms. After extensive review and due diligence, Wired West chose the Matrix Design Group of East Hanover, NJ, to complete the contract. They have designed and built fiber networks extensively in the Northeast, including Massachusetts, completing projects for private and public sector interests, in urban, suburban and rural areas. The work by Matrix is scheduled to be completed in early October, and will be used in WiredWest’s business plan and for financing.
In April, WiredWest completed a comprehensive market survey, conducted by Market Street Research. The survey results indicate strong demand for the network, and provide important information for WiredWest pricing and packaging decisions, and subscription rate estimates.
Last week WiredWest launched its online Support Card, a request form for internet, phone and TV/video services from the future WiredWest network. A printed version of the card will also be delivered to residents in each town over the next several weeks. The results will be used to support financing and in decisions relating to where and when towns will be wired. We urge all WiredWest town residents and businesses to complete the card by September 15, 2012.
WiredWest will be focused on finalizing the business plan, including information from the network design and cost estimation, and the Support Card campaign, over the next couple of months. In addition, WiredWest will be working on potential financing options and an economic impact study to quantify the regional economic impact of the network.
June: Status Update
WiredWest has issued a Request for Proposal for high level network design and cost estimates for the WiredWest fiber-to-the-premise network. The results will be used as the basis for WiredWest’s pro-forma and financing. “The work generated by this RFP will provide critical information to take the project to the next step,” said Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest, “which is imperative, as the digital divide afflicting our region continues to hinder our economic development, educational opportunities and quality of life.”
WiredWest will work with the awardee to create a design that meets the needs of member communities and works for financing requirements. A fiber-optic network is able to process large amounts of data at the speed of light, enabling modern applications for business, education, health care and entertainment. Fiber-optic technology is the backbone of worldwide telecommunications and wireless networks today, and has the capacity to serve our communities for decades to come.
Responses to the RFP are due at WiredWest’s offices at or before July 18, 2012. Questions can be submitted up until July 4, 2012 and the answers will be posted by July 11, 2012. The award will be announced by August 1, 2012.
April: Status Update
Several new member towns have passed the required votes and joined the Cooperative in the last couple of months, bringing our current member towns to 29. Two new towns, Tolland and Royalston, were also approved to join WiredWest, which brings the number of additional towns working on completing the governance requirements for membership to 15. We expect most of those towns to join after the 2012 town meeting season. You can check the current progress of towns on the WiredWest participating towns map.
Four new members were voted to the WiredWest Advisory Council. The Council will provide expertise and advice to the project, and serve as advocates for WiredWest. Its members were chosen for their long-term commitment to WiredWest and expertise relevant to the project. New members include special effects pioneer and recent Oscar recipient Douglas Trumbull; Richard Allen, a retired attorney who specialized in large and complex project and lease financings; Ben Schwartz, a longtime advisor to WiredWest, and member of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative Board of Directors; and Ryan Shea, a Marketing Director at AOL.
WiredWest recently received a grant from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to assist with legal work and contracts, and that work is underway. A detailed project plan has been developed and significant progress is being made on engineering and mapping, with over $135,000 in pro bono work being completed by volunteers over the past several months. All of WiredWest’s towns’ utility poles, structures and roads are now digitally mapped, providing pertinent information for the engineers. An RFI for engineering work was issued; respondents evaluated; and an RFP for specific engineering tasks is being finalized.
Our current efforts are primarily focused on the WiredWest business plan, which we expect to be complete in early June. One critical task for the plan is a comprehensive market survey that provides detailed pricing and market segmentation information. WiredWest has selected a qualified Northampton firm to implement the survey – however – we are working on finalizing the funding required. As with all of our work thus far, our progress is very much reliant upon grants, donations of in-kind services and funds, and significant volunteer efforts.
January / February: Status Update
As 2012 begins, WiredWest is continuing to work diligently to bring the 21st century broadband to the doorsteps of our community residents and businesses.
Highlights for 2011 include:
- The WiredWest Communications Cooperative Corporation was established in August, and currently has 24 Western Massachusetts member towns that have passed the Municipal Light Plant legislation. Eighteen additional towns are in the process of voting and/or joining. Voting requires each town to conduct votes at two town meetings that must pass with two thirds majorities. So far, most towns have passed it unanimously or close to it.
- Bylaws and policy guidelines for the Cooperative were drafted and adopted.
- Approval of WiredWest Articles of Incorporation by the Massachusetts Secretary of State.
- The following groups within the WiredWest Cooperative were established to complete tasks and provide guidance to the project:
o Executive Committee
o Board of Directors
o Working committees
o Advisory Council
- Development of a working pro-forma. This 30-page document is a set of projected financial statements in a dynamic format that enables easy modification of inputs.
- Development of an FY 2012 operating budget
- Award of a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) to be used towards a market study, engineering survey, mapping, and procurement support.
- Award of a $2,500 grant from the Central Berkshire Fund.
- Pledges of $105,000 of matching funds and in-kind services to support the project
- Donations of $9,000 in direct donations and underwriting
- Development of a procurement plan for key vendors and services, as required under Massachusetts 30B, the Uniform Procurement Act.
Our ongoing work is focused on finalizing our business plan and its underlying assumptions, and completing tasks for the MBI grant. We will be issuing our first Request for Information for engineering services before the end of the year and also will have a new brand identity for 2012.
Plans for 2012:
2012 will be another busy year, focused initially on finishing the business plan and procuring partners for our financing team and operation of the network. We expect to have the business plan and engineering survey completed by April 1, 2012, and will keep you posted on key developments, especially progress on financing and buildout plans.
August 14th: Status Update
August 13th was a historic occasion for many Western Massachusetts towns, which officially formed a joint cooperative to build and operate a state-of-the-art telecommunications network for residents and businesses. The new Cooperative – WiredWest – will create a community-owned network offering high quality internet, phone and television services to member towns.
Today, most WiredWest towns have only partial coverage from limited-bandwidth broadband technologies. Forming the WiredWest Cooperative represents our towns taking responsibility for ensuring we have the fundamental infrastructure to support future economic development and quality of life for residents.
Twenty-two Western Massachusetts towns joined the Cooperative, with 18 additional towns in the process of voting and expected to join the Coop over the next year. Founding member towns span four counties, including Berkshire County towns of Egremont, Great Barrington, Monterey, New Marlborough, Otis, Peru, Sandisfield, Washington and West Stockbridge; Franklin County towns of Ashfield, Charlemont, Conway, Heath, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell; Hampshire County towns of Cummington, Heath, Middlefield and Plainfield; and the Hampden County town of Chester. See here for a map of WiredWest towns and their progress.
As part of the official incorporation activities, delegates signed a Cooperative Agreement, elected a leadership team to oversee the project, and approved the Coop’s bylaws. The incorporation took place in Cummington, a town in the geographic center of WiredWest’s territory, and was followed by a celebration attended by town delegates, legislators and regional broadband advocates.
Now that the group is officially a legal entity, WiredWest’s focus is completion of a comprehensive business plan, raising financing and planning the network. The group recently received a $50,000 planning grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, and is raising additional local funding to assist with start-up requirements.
June 30th: Status Update
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) announced yesterday that WiredWest will be a recipient of their award program to advance last-mile broadband solutions. This award will be leveraged with in-kind services and additional funding to complete the planning process for the WiredWest fiber-to-the-premise network in its member towns in 2011 and 2012.
According to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), “grant recipients were selected through an open, rigorous and highly-competitive process.” WiredWest is pleased to have been selected as a recipient, and views this funding as critical to completing a broadband network design and business model that will serve WiredWest communities. Monica Webb, spokesperson for WiredWest, describes the award as “an important contribution towards creating critical, long-lived telecommunications infrastructure in the region.”
WiredWest is a coalition of 47 Charter towns in Western Massachusetts that are unserved or underserved by high-speed internet. As a community organization, WiredWest represents 27,000 households and over 3,000 businesses, and is working to design, build and operate a last-mile, municipal fiber-optic network offering internet, phone and television services to interested residents and businesses.
Under the MBI program, WiredWest was awarded a $50,000 grant, the maximum award amount. The primary tasks WiredWest will fund from the grant include completion of an engineering survey and cost estimates, procurement of vendors and professional services, a market survey, and purchase of mapping information for engineering purposes. In-kind services from regional advocates and organizations will also be utilized to complete these organizational tasks.
March 27th: Status Update
The WiredWest project can be broken into three distinct phases: 1) Planning 2) Pilot Projects and 3) Large-scale buildout. We are in the planning stage now and are working on the following fronts simultaneously:
A scope of work for the second phase of planning assistance, which will bring WiredWest to the point of soliciting financing for capitalization, and includes the creation of a comprehensive business plan, projected financial statements, preliminary engineering and town-by-town cost estimates and development of service provider relationships, has been developed. The first priority is the finalization of a business plan.
We have selected a governance structure which uses an existing Masachusetts statute allowing towns to establish Municipal Light Plants (MLPs) for the purpose of providing, among other things, telecommunications services. We have created basic bylaws and articles of incorporation. We are also assisting our member towns in taking the steps necessary to set up individual MLPs and then join the cooperative. The WiredWest Communications cooperative will also be an MLP. We expect to form the cooperative with approximately twenty-five towns to start, in the beginning of July, 2011.
Planning Phase Financial Support
WiredWest has received over $75,000 in grants and donations, in addition to significant in-kind support to assist with the first phase of planning. Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) and Franklin County Council of Governments (FRCOG) provided a combined grant for access to municipal legal counsel, mapping assistance and access to data in 2010, and FRCOG provided a second grant for access to municipal legal counsel for 2011.
In late 2010, WiredWest and Hilltown CDC created an agreement whereby Hilltown CDC will serve as WiredWest’s interim fiduciary, which enables the application for grants, management of funds, and issuance of tax deductible receipts for donations. Private donations have funded project counsel David Shaw, one of the country’s foremost municipal broadband attorneys. Donations have also been used to underwrite ongoing operating expenses.
We have prepared an operating budget for 2011. We are working with Design Nine to further refine our business model and business plan. Design Nine, an international firm specializing in municipal broadband networks has guided WiredWest’s first phase of planning, culminating in a comprehensive set of business and organizational recommendations. The first phase of Design Nine’s services were funded with the financial support of the MBI. WiredWest is moving forward with Design Nine working on a deferred compensation basis, for which WiredWest is seeking underwriters and grants.
WiredWest is working on a number of potential financing strategies, including:
• Local notes with capitalized interest to provide start-up funds;
• Grants and loans from state, national and private sources;
• Municipal bonds through the authority of the Cooperative;
• Loan guaranties to make bond offerings more attractive;
• Public-private partnerships
WiredWest is working with appropriate financial expertise to structure the business model and potential investment vehicles to be attractive to potential investors without placing undue pressure on debt service costs.
WiredWest intends to work closely with the MBI and their chosen network operator to ensure efficient utilization of the MBI backbone to accelerate availability of broadband in our region. We intend to build a high performance network and are comparing GPON, modified GPON and active Ethernet network benefits to ensure we build a cost-effective network that supports symmetric bandwidth and the delivery of business-class services to any location in the WiredWest region. In addition, WiredWest will work with wireless providers in order to overlay a robust wireless network on top of our fiber network to enhance mobile Internet access.
In preparation for network build-out, we are collecting and mapping detailed data on household and business locations, utility pole locations and ownership, and the availability of other telecommunications services on a household-by-household level.
Marketing and Strategic Partnerships
WiredWest is undertaking a comprehensive outreach effort to educate citizens, businesses, legislators and institutions in the region about the WiredWest initiative and its potential economic, community development and individual benefits. WiredWest will be also be reaching out to potential strategic partners.
We are in the process of implementing a fundraising plan which includes the solicitation of grants from businesses, foundations, and government, as well as donations from businesses and individuals throughout our 47 town region and in neighboring communities. During the pilot project phase we will expand these activities to include seeking bank loans and issuing low-interest notes to private investors in Western Mass.
The next stage of WiredWest’s activities will be the creation of pilot projects. This is a critical step in our development, since the pilot projects will enable us to demonstrate that we can successfully build, maintain, and operate a fiber optic network. They will also build our equity, create a revenue stream, and enable us to establish and test relationships with network designers and builders, network operators, and service providers. WiredWest has already developed criteria for selecting pilot towns. After the cooperative is formed, we will finalize these criteria and begin the selection process. We will also begin to raise money for these projects. Once the towns have been selected, detailed network design can proceed. Once financing is secured, the Pilot Projects can begin. WiredWest intends to make this transition in late 2011.
January 7th: Towns Move Forward on WiredWest Governance Votes
In September, delegates from WiredWest Charter Towns chose a governance structure to be voted on by individual towns. Governance is critical to formalizing the relationship between participating WiredWest towns and creating a vehicle to capitalize and operate the network.
The chosen governance structure for the WiredWest organization is a public cooperative, made up of member towns that have passed Municipal Light Plant legislation. Research on potential forms of governance was conducted by counsel and consultants with the assistance of WiredWest’s Steering Committee and delegates.
Municipal Light Plant (MLP) legislation is listed under Massachusetts General Laws 164, and was created over 100 years ago to enable towns to provide electricity. In 1996, it was amended to allow the provision of telecommunications services. The MLP option is advantageous to WiredWest’s efforts for a number of reasons, particularly the expediency of using existing legislation.
What Municipal Light Plant legislation means for towns
Passing the MLP legislation creates a new town department, and does not require a town to produce or sell electricity. The Selectboard can choose to oversee its MLP department themselves or appoint a three to five member board. This group is responsible for appointing a manager, making decisions around the town’s participation and representation in the WiredWest Cooperative, and filing annually with the State.
Creating the MLP incurs no cost to the town. If a town decides to join the WiredWest Cooperative, there will be a membership fee of not more than $1,000 per town. For a town to become an MLP requires a two-thirds majority pass vote of voters present, at two town meetings, two to 13 months apart. For further information, please refer to WiredWest’s information bulletin on Municipal Light Plant legislation, including the warrant article wording, and our Governance FAQ.
MLP Voting Progress and Schedule
Ten towns, including Ashfield, Charlemont, Egremont, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Otis, Shutesbury, Wendell and West Stockbridge have successfully passed their first votes at special town meetings. The following towns have upcoming votes: Colrain & Washington, January 24th; Conway, January 31st; Warwick Febuary 7th; and Great Barrington, February 9th. Several other towns are in the process of confirming dates. These towns plan to hold their second votes at Annual Town Meetings in the Spring. All towns that have established MLPs by June 30, 2011 will be invited as founding members of the WiredWest Communications Cooperative.
Please see here for the status of your town.
September 13th: WiredWest Delegates Choose a Governance Structure
On Saturday, September 11th, WiredWest town delegates chose a preferred governance structure to be submitted for approval by individual towns. This critical project milestone keeps the WiredWest effort on track and positioned to serve residents and businesses once the Massachusetts Broadband Institute “middle mile” project is ready.
The delegates decided the organization would be formed as a public co-operative, made up of member towns. This structure was selected after months of research, consideration of 12 potential options, and recommendation from the project’s Steering Committee. Governance structure is critical to formalizing the relationship between participating WiredWest towns, and creating a vehicle to capitalize and operate the network.
Research on potential forms of governance was conducted by counsel and consultants with the assistance of WiredWest’s Steering Committee and delegates. Municipal counsel was provided with support from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Franklin County Council of Governments. David Shaw, of Kirton & McConkie assisted as project counsel for WiredWest. Shaw is one of the country’s most experienced attorneys in community broadband. Working with legal counsel and providing overall guidance was Design Nine, an international consulting firm with an extensive profile designing and building community broadband networks. Design Nine’s services to WiredWest are provided by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.
A public co-operative enables WiredWest to move forward legally, practically and financially. Work on other aspects of the project, including engineering, business planning and financing, is proceeding simultaneously over the next several months, to ensure WiredWest is positioned to secure financing and begin construction as soon as enough towns officially join the Co-operative.
The WiredWest Steering Committee and town delegates will conduct extensive outreach on the benefits of a fiber-to-the-premises, open-access network, and the advantages of working together through the public Co-operative.
July 3rd: How the Stimulus Award to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute helps WiredWest
Governor Patrick and members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation announced yesterday that the Commonwealth has been awarded $45.4 million in federal stimulus funding to expand broadband access.
The federal grant funding will be supplemented by $26.2 million in matching funds from the Commonwealth, bringing the total investment in the project to $71.6 million. This will enable a robust middle-mile network to be built by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) in Western and North-Central Massachusetts that will serve 123 communities. This wholesale network will bring MBI’s high-capacity fiber to the center of every town and connect Western Massachusetts community anchor institutions – town halls, fire stations and libraries – to the network. Even more importantly, it will provide the link to Wired West’s proposed last-mile network, enabling Wired West to extend fiber-optic connectivity to all of our homes, businesses and institutions in Western Massachusetts that desperately want service.
June 26th: First WiredWest All-town Meeting Convenes in Cummington
The 47 towns that have voted or otherwise opted to join the WiredWest organization formation discussions officially convened on June 26th for the inaugural all-town meeting in Cummington, just two days after the final town votes.
The first order of business for WiredWest is to determine the best governance structure, so that a legal entity can be approved by the towns. The research on governance options will be done by the WiredWest Steering Committee and the Governance Committee, with guidance from Dr. Andrew Cohill, a community broadband network consultant from Design Nine that has been provided by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, and a municipal lawyer provided through grants from Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Franklin County Council of Governments.
Work on several other issues, including business model assessment, potential financing, needs assessment and network planning is also being conducted simultaneously by the WiredWest Steering Committee and other subcommittees, with guidance from Dr. Cohill, and input from legislators and other key regional stakeholders.
June 24, 2010: All Towns Ratify WiredWest Warrant Article
All towns have now passed the WiredWest article on their town warrants, and two additional town Selectboards – Egremont and Lanesborough – have also opted to join the discussions around the formation of the WiredWest organization. The total is now 47 towns. See here for a map of the towns involved.
June 7, 2010: WiredWest Engages Services of Community Broadband Network Consultant
Cohill is a broadband architect with an international reputation for his work advising large and small communities on technology and broadband issues. In the United States, he has worked with communities across the country, with recent work in New Hampshire, Virginia, Illinois, New Mexico, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Cohill is an expert in the design and management of community-owned and open access networks.
Founded in 1987, Design Nine offers a comprehensive array of technology advisory services, telecommunications project management, and network design assistance, and is one of a very few firms in the United States with experience in open access broadband networks.
The scope of work entails:
1. Needs assessment, review of related experience, bandwidth projections and demographic analysis for the region.
2. Governance and ownership recommendations
3. Broadband survey development and support
4. Pro forma business plan, recommendations for a specific business model, and a then year pro forma financial analysis that includes estimates for a full build out.
5. Funding strategies for financing the network
6. Incumbent and service provider strategy
7. An analysis of the value of pilot project study areas and accompanying costs
8. An Executive Summary of recommendations for leaders and decision makers and an extensive set of handouts and broadband education materials
Cohill’s services were made available to WiredWest by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), whose mission is to bring broadband access to unserved citizens of the Commonwealth. WiredWest is grateful for the MBI’s support.
May 18, 2010: 33 Towns Vote to Join WiredWest Discussions So Far
In order to join WiredWest, 46 towns unserved or underserved by broadband are being asked to vote on their participation at 2010 town meetings. Over the past month, all towns addressing the issue have passed the article at town meetings – and The Egremont Selectboard has also chosen to join. There are 13 more town meetings that will also be voting over the next month. For status of your town, please see the map of participating towns.
Representatives from towns that opt to participate will form the initial governing board of WiredWest. Once all towns have had the opportunity to vote, the first meeting of the organization will be convened and pressing issues of governance and inter-municipal agreements will be addressed. We anticipate that meeting will occur at the end of June.
May 4, 2010: WiredWest Testifies to Regionalization Advisory Commission
On May 4th, the Chair of the WiredWest Steering Committee had the opportunity to testify to the State’s Regionalization Advisory Commission (RAC), which is tasked with studying a range of opportunities, benefits and challenges of regionalizing local government services. We hope the RAC initiative serves to both streamline efforts and leverage state resources to benefit critical regional projects like WiredWest.
April 10, 2010: Regional Planning Agency Grants Will Provide Legal Assistance and Pre-network Planning
Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) and the Franklin County Council of Governments (FRCOG) are providing support through their 2010 District Local Technical Assistance Grants to further pre-network planning for WiredWest.
A feature of the 2010 grants is access to a municipal lawyer on staff at BRPC. Expertise in municipal law is critical to evaluation of potential governance structures for WiredWest, and having access to BRPC’s counsel expedites the governance work and provides considerable cost savings to the WiredWest project.
In 2009, BRPC provided similar grants to some WiredWest towns to assess any regulatory impediments to broadband technologies, in addition to mapping every utility pole in those towns, and structures where available, into GIS maps. Those maps will be used for network engineering, and by having that information early, it will save considerable time and resources in the network planning process. As part of the 2010 grant, BRPC will use pictometry to overlay missing structures onto the existing GIS maps as well.
WiredWest is very grateful for the support and expertise of our regional planning agencies.
April 2010: Town Meetings and Educational Presentations
WiredWest is building a multi-town organization that will bring high speed internet to every resident, business and institution in the unserved and underserved communities of Western Massachusetts.
As part of building that organization, we are going to our member towns to ask that an article supporting a regional fiber-to-the-home broadband network be placed on the 2010 warrants. Specifically the article asks the select board to join with other towns to begin the process of designing, funding, and building such a network. Technically, the request is for the town to work with other towns to create the bylaws for an inter-municipal agreement, which the towns would then accept and therefore join a regional group. To date, most towns have placed the article on their warrant or will soon.
In advance of town meetings, we will be offering educational presentations in each town to provide detailed first-hand information on the project.
March 2010: Google RFI
While we are in an early phase of organization, we are constantly monitoring all potential solutions for our region and are committed to exploring each opportunity. Many of you have written to us about Google’s plan to build and test ultra high speed broadband networks in one or more communities across the country. This is a trial project so that Google can experiment with new ways to help make the Internet better and faster for everybody. It is also a way for Google to test new products and services.
After careful consideration, the WiredWest Steering Committee has decided to submit, through the Google Request for Information, a statement about why the Google trial might be appropriate for our region. We will then follow that up with a more thorough document, providing more detailed information along the lines of what Google is requesting through its local government portal. There is a significant amount of data that we have in hand for the region that we can provide on behalf of the region. This will go directly to Google along with an outline of the WiredWest project.
Of course, no single town in our Western Mass Region will likely meet Google’s minimum threshold for its pilot project. But our region as a whole might. We encourage town leaders, broadband committee representatives, and residents to express interest in the Google pilot project by directly sending their own response. Please reference Wired West in your response so that Google is aware of the extent of our community support.
While we recognize that our submission is likely a long shot, the point of providing responses to Google’s Request for Information is to demonstrate demand in Western Massachusetts for broadband services, and in particular for a fiber to the home solution. We believe fiber is the only acceptable solution for our region and the only solution that will create a future-proof network to serve all of us for decades to come. An equally important point is to demonstrate that folks in Western Massachusetts want a broadband solution that is an open network, where any internet (and telephone and television) service provider can access the network to offer services to customers. This concept, which is central to the Google pilot project, is important to create the competition necessary to keep services affordable so that anyone who wants high speed internet can have it.
And finally, if any single town does decide to submit the comprehensive local government information, we request that they send a copy of that submission to The WiredWest Steering committee.