By Steve Nelson
(reprinted from Berkshire Eagle, Broadband effort gets back on track, October 12, 2016 )

You will soon see work crews standing around utility poles, gazing upward. They’ll not only be checking the cables on those poles, but looking as well toward the future of broadband in western Massachusetts.

The long-awaited project to bring high-speed internet service to unserved homes and businesses in Berkshire and adjacent counties is once again on track. Last winter Gov. Baker put the project on hold and under review, after it had run off the rails. In the spring he appointed two new key executives at the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the agency responsible for the state’s participation. His mandate to them: get it moving.

To get started, tens of thousands of utility poles in the region must be surveyed. Is there enough room on each pole for a new fiber-optic cable, will the existing cables on a pole have to be moved to accommodate the new one, or is a new taller pole needed to provide the required space?

Since the summer, town representatives have been working with MBI to better understand the financial implications of building a fiber network in their towns and to demonstrate their eligibility to proceed. A few towns like Washington have already completed this readiness process, and many others are well underway. MBI began the first pole surveys in Ashfield last week, with other towns to follow in steady succession.

Despite the sometimes acrimonious relationship between towns and MBI last winter, I can say from my own experience, and from what I hear from other towns, that the readiness process has been harmonious. We’re all working productively with the MBI’s technical staff to put the pole surveys in motion. Despite the web development company project’s past problems, this came as no surprise to me. I’ve worked with engineers and techies for 40 years. When they’re given the responsibility to get a job done, they do it.

An important piece of the progress being made is a new Last Mile Program Policy approved on Sept. 29 by the MBI Board of Directors and by the Executive Committee of its parent organization, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. That policy stresses the “importance of regionalization,” which has been the rationale and motivation for the WiredWest municipal cooperative since its formation over five years ago.

Specifically, the policy states that MBI is “committed to providing opportunities for towns to associate and join together for any component of network operation that is mutually beneficial.” While for purposes of the readiness process towns have been proceeding on the assumption that they are building independent networks to serve towns individually, the policy anticipates that “the design, construction and operation” of such single-town networks will allow them “to join with a multi-town network” to share services and achieve economies of scale.

Towns’ clear rights

The policy concludes by emphasizing that “the formation and governance of these collaborations will be at the discretion and the purview of the towns.” This has been what WiredWest and its member towns have maintained all along, that the towns have the right under Massachusetts law to form a cooperative such as WiredWest and to determine how it will be governed, especially since the towns are putting up almost two-thirds of the money for the fiber network.

Even before MBI adopted its new policy, WiredWest was moving down a parallel track. Its Board of Directors, comprised of delegates from its member towns, unanimously agreed that it should evaluate potential vendors to provide network operation services on a regional basis, so that each town might not have to contract with vendors on its own. WiredWest recently issued a Request for Information (RFI), to which it had a strong response, about what services potential vendors can provide. This complies with the policy’s requirement that vendors must have “experience in the residential broadband market and a solid financial foundation.”

WiredWest is now developing a plan to present to its members as to how it would retain and manage providers to serve the region. The most immediate need, as the fiber project moves beyond pole surveys and into actual construction, is for a professional working for WiredWest to oversee that construction and the expenditure of town funds, a critical function towns do not have sufficient capability to do by themselves.

This is essential in light of a provision in the policy that the towns will be responsible “in the event of cost overruns on construction” beyond the original financial commitment they approved for the project. But towns legally cannot provide additional funds to MBI unless first approved at a town meeting. And I cannot imagine taxpayers voting for more funding unless towns have meaningful oversight of how their money is spent.

It is in the mutual interest of the towns and MBI that there be such oversight. Once this is agreed to, the broadband train will really roll.

– Steve Nelson is the town of Washington’s delegate to WiredWest and its liaison to MBI.