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.