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How State Politics Screwed Up a Solid Broadband Plan for Western Massachusetts

While rural western Massachusetts is stuck in a rural broadband swamp of Verizon’s making, politics in the state capital and governor’s office are risking Yankee ingenuity for another “free market” broadband solution that won’t solve the problem.

The dedicated locals that created WiredWest, the grassroots-envisioned regional broadband solution for more than two dozen towns suffering with inadequate or non-existent broadband service, have toiled for nearly a decade to accomplish what Verizon (or a cable operator) has never managed to do – provide consistently available internet access. WiredWest spent years carefully listening and learning the needs and challenges of each of their member towns. Communities affected by broadband deficiencies in this part of Massachusetts range from the most prosperous areas of the Berkshires to those financially struggling with a range of economic challenges.

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband.

WiredWest’s original plan would have brought fiber broadband to practically everyone in the region in just a few years, with more prosperous and populous towns helping subsidize network construction costs for their more budget-challenged rural neighbors. The goal was to avoid the patchwork of broadband have’s and have not’s that many private providers have created across rural America.

Establishing a regional network instead of trying to launch dozens of smaller community-owned providers would help streamline costs, avoid duplicating services, and deliver continuity of service. The concept made plenty of sense to two dozen town leaders and the participating communities, most voting to support the regional approach. But it apparently didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to a bureaucratic state agency called the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) that suddenly questioned the project’s operating plan and has avoided releasing tens of millions of dollars stashed in its bank account designated for rural broadband network construction.

MBI’s detractors call the agency a “concern troll” and some question whether MBI’s objections are the result of the usual friction between out-of-touch state bureaucrats and the rural communities they are supposed to help, or something more insidious. Others are content stating MBI’s position simply does not make any sense.

MBI spent more than a million dollars of taxpayer funds on lawyers and a Bangalore, India-based consultancy to produce and defend a dubious hit piece “analysis” about WiredWest rife with misconceptions and factual errors. The MBI-sponsored report concluded WiredWest would simply never work. What works better for MBI is handing out $4 million in taxpayer dollars to Comcast, with tens of millions more to be spent on funding private rural broadband projects in the future.

Crawford

Earlier this month, broadcast activist Susan Crawford shared her blistering conclusions about the usefulness of MBI:

For an agency that has produced virtually nothing so far, MBI is a high-priced operation. As far as I can tell, last year MBI spent $1 million of those state funds on consultants, lawyers, and administrative costs in order to hand $4 million to Comcast to provide its usual service to about a thousand homes in those nine Massachusetts towns that already had some cable service. What’s odd is that MBI told the public it chose Comcast because the company had vast experience and could get the work done without involving MBI—so it cost $1 million in oversight expenses to choose a company that doesn’t need oversight.

Despite protests from many residents across WiredWest’s would-be service area, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sided with his bureaucrats and stalled rural broadband deployment further with a temporary hold, which some claimed gave MBI and community broadband opponents additional time to further undermine WiredWest’s efforts.

Most recently, the same agency that wrung its hands worrying about the efficacy of WiredWest had no problem offering a quick $20 million in grants to private companies for rural broadband solutions. Few in broadband-challenged western Massachusetts are likely to be happy about the results of the latest machinations of MBI’s “free market solution with public taxpayer funds.” Last week, the public got its first look at the submitted applications, largely underwhelming in scope and specifics. None come close to offering the kind of ubiquitous and affordable broadband WiredWest proposed.

MBI also tailored their request for proposals to arbitrarily limit applicants, declaring only companies with $100 million in yearly revenue and at least five years experience building, operating, and maintaining residential broadband networks need apply. Had Google Fiber proposed to wire the entire region with fiber optics in an application, MBI would have turned Google down for lack of experience. (Google Fiber launched service in late 2012.) In fact, no startup or municipal project of any kind could realistically apply. Comcast and Charter could, and both did.

MBI claims each town will make their own final decision, but many communities have already done that by choosing WiredWest. Some towns are frustrated by the state’s interminable delays and politics and are discouraged with the potential spectacle of MBI continuing to throw up roadblocks for political reasons. Those communities are planning their own alternative projects if WiredWest can never get off the ground. The only current alternative is hoping a private company will step up and deliver service. Six applicants responded to MBI’s request for proposals from private providers. Only two showed any willingness to offer service across all of broadband-challenged western and central Massachusetts. Two others were cable operators that have neglected expanding service on their own because it was not profitable to do so. Another two applicants only wanted to serve a handful of communities. Here is an overview of the proposals:

Crocker Communications: Short on specifics, Crocker’s proposal claims an interest in wiring almost 40 unserved communities for $59.15 million, including $18.33 million in taxpayer funds, split into individual grants for each community. But even Crocker, among the most ambitious and detailed applicants, cannot meet MBI’s revenue qualifications, so it attempts to claim a vendor relationship with Fujitsu Network Communications of Japan, which supplies network infrastructure. How Fujitsu would be financially involved in the project to minimize the chances of Crocker running into financial problems while building out its proposed network is not adequately explained. Crocker only specifies $5 million of its own assets will be on the line.

Crocker’s website promotes the company’s desire to have a bigger presence in the state thanks to its cooperation with MBI. Crocker currently provides internet service to customers of a Leverett-based community broadband project. Coincidentally, Peter d’Errico of Leverett’s Broadband Committee was one of the contributors to MBI’s sponsored report slamming the WiredWest project as unrealistic and underfunded. We’re not sure what d’Errico thinks about Crocker Communications’ proposal, which asks for grants as little as $150,000 to help wire one community — New Ashford.

In an aspirational executive summary, Matthew Crocker, president of Crocker Communications, offers an admission there are “inherent challenges in fulfilling the Request For Proposals.” His conclusion: “If this were easy, it would be well underway.”

Crocker’s proposal won’t be easy for roughly 30% of those living in the nearly 40 communities his company proposes to serve. That’s because his company won’t be serving them. Crocker’s proposal only suggests he will deliver service to about 70% of the service area. MBI wanted proposals that would reach 96% of the population. But there will be plenty of time to contemplate these points. Crocker’s proposal warns residents may have to wait until 2021 before they can get service. That will give would-be customers four years to save enough money to pay Crocker’s proposed installation fees: “under $2,000 for 70% of homes passed” or “$3,000 for 96% of homes passed.” Ouch.

Whip City Fiber: Even more murky than Crocker Communications’ proposal, Westfield Gas & Electric’s “Whip City” fiber service submitted a plan offering to serve any of the 40 communities MBI identifies as underserved, but the details aren’t there, except to describe the service the company already provides to its own customers. The actual number of towns to be served and the schedule to launch service are all: TBD = To Be Determined.

Mid-Hudson Data: The most modest of proposals from this Catskill, N.Y. based company seeks $260,000 to offer 279 homes fiber service and wireless for another 20 in the community of Tyringham. Customers would pay an installation fee of $150. While potentially good news for customer living near George Cannon Road, it isn’t much help to the rest of the region.

Fiber Connect, LLC: Another modest proposal from this regionally based ISP offers to provide broadband service for Alford, Becket, New Marlborough, Otis, Tolland and Tyringham. The proposal notes the company is already running a pilot broadband program in Monterey and Egremont. One potential stumbling block is a poorly explained installation fee ranging from $0 if municipalities agree to a “fixed average cost” that could be included in grant funding or a municipally guaranteed lease-to-own payment to $299 if a customers apply for a mysterious promotion or rebate, or $999 which is defined as the basic “initial installation cost.”

Charter Communications: Formerly Time Warner Cable, Charter is hunting for taxpayer-funded grants to expand broadband service to Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, Princeton and Shutesbury. All of those communities are near existing Charter/Time Warner Cable systems and the company spared no time in their application promoting their existing close ties with MBI to bring broadband to Hinsdale, Lanesborough, and West Stockbridge. Charter claims it can expand its cable service into the nearby communities in a “reasonable amount of time” but does not get more specific than that.

Comcast: Boils down its application to “we’re doing you a favor, but you pay” language reminding MBI the communities Comcast now proposes to serve: Goshen, Montgomery, Princeton and Shutesbury don’t come close to Comcast’s demand for return on its investment. But since taxpayers are helping to foot the bill….

The one noticeable difference Comcast has over all the rest of the applicants is a page-and-a-half of details about the various regulator-imposed fines and penalties it has had to pay recently for being an ongoing menace to its own customers. Is it arrogance for a company to assume such a vast number of damaging disclosures would not lead a responsible grantor to put the application in the circular file, or is it something else? After all, Comcast was already awarded up to $4 million in taxpayer funds in Massachusetts as a gushing press release reported in August, 2016:

WESTBOROUGH – The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech (MBI) and Comcast have reached an agreement that will extend broadband access in nine municipalities in Western and North Central Massachusetts, a project which is estimated to deliver broadband connectivity to 1,089 new residences and businesses, and will bring the overall coverage level in each town to 96% or above. The grant will provide up to $4 million in state funds to reimburse partial project costs for Comcast, which has existing networks in each of the towns, to construct broadband internet extensions to additional homes and businesses.

“This agreement further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to tackling broadband connectivity challenges for unserved residents and businesses,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “This public-private partnership will deliver sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity to nine rural communities that previously faced significant coverage gaps, allowing nearly 1,100 households and businesses to participate more fully in the digital economy.”

“Our results-oriented approach to bridging broadband access gaps is connecting thousands of rural residents to the modern internet,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We will continue to employ a dynamic, flexible approach to the Last Mile project, and seek solutions that meet the unique needs of communities and residents unserved by broadband access.”

The construction of the broadband extensions in Buckland, Conway, Chester, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne is estimated to be completed within two years from the start of the project. The public-private partnership will extend high-speed internet service to unserved residents at speeds that meet or exceed the FCC’s definition of broadband service, through a hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable network.

Wired West Responds With a New Plan

Faced with insurmountable political obstacles, the folks behind WiredWest have bowed to the reality of the current political landscape and reintroduced themselves and their newest plan to get western Massachusetts wired for fiber optic broadband while trying to avoid any further encounters with MBI’s speed bumps and obstacles.

If WiredWest made one mistake, it was forgetting to establish the one connection that apparently matters more than anything else in Massachusetts: a political connection with state lawmakers. But the indefatigable group has not given up, and if the MBI is being honest about being an impartial partner in improving rural broadband in Massachusetts, there is still a better option available to communities than the six proposals recently submitted to MBI. That option is WiredWest.

In its latest proposal WiredWest would continue to play a significant role in the network after being built, with proven service plans that will deliver real broadband service to residents at rates comparable to what private companies charge. But the project will rely on member towns to construct their own fiber networks using private contractors and state and local funding. That puts more responsibility and network ownership in the hands of each individual town, an idea some towns originally rejected as too expensive and cumbersome. But MBI holds the money and has apparently rewritten the rules, so what MBI wants is what MBI will get.

The added cost to the project and the communities involved is significant: there will be some towns that cannot afford or manage the responsibility of constructing their own fiber networks and will likely drop out of the project. The new network plan will also increase costs WiredWest originally hoped to avoid. The group’s financial model also effectively subsidized some of the costs for the smallest and least able communities — a model that could be gone for good.

Each participating town network that does eventually get built will be connected in a ring topology to MassBroadband123, the state’s “middle mile” fiber network that is run privately by Axia Networks. At this point, it appears 14 communities are still on board with WiredWest, seven are “considering” the new WiredWest plan, and another 16 are “pursuing other options” but have not ruled out staying with WiredWest.

It is our recommendation that communities do everything possible to stay loyal to WiredWest, which has a proven track record of being responsive and accessible to communities across the region. Bucking the state’s inexcusable political interference by remaining united sends a strong message that local communities know best what they need, not a high-priced consultant, Springfield-based lawyers and bureaucrats, or the governor. None of those people have to live with the consequences of inferior or non-existent broadband and none have given the problem the kind of serious attention WiredWest has. The biggest challenge to WiredWest isn’t its financial sustainability, it is politics, and that needs to stop.

We’ve reviewed the submissions from MBI’s latest round of grant funding for private projects and they are all inadequate. While many of the companies involved are well-meaning and we believe could play a role in improving rural broadband, most of the applications seem to have been rushed and many lack specifics.

The region should not accept any plan offering only 70% broadband coverage, much less a proposal that will force another four-year wait for broadband (we credit Crocker Communications for at least including a specific timetable, something many of the other proposals did not.) Installation fees up to $3,000 are also unaffordable, with or without a financing plan.

Some analysts still worry if WiredWest can attract enough customers to be sustainable. If it isn’t, most of the private projects MBI has received applications for certainly are not either. Assuming customers can afford a few thousand dollars for installation — a major impediment to getting new customers, there is no guarantee which homes will get service and when. Competitively speaking, considering the only available alternative in most cases is spotty 1-6Mbps DSL from Verizon — a service the company has lost interest in improving or expanding — Verizon is likely to receive the same treatment it gets in other communities where better alternatives exist — a mass exodus of customers cutting Verizon’s cord for good. In fact, Verizon may ultimately sell its landline network in western Massachusetts to another company as it continues to disengage from its wireline businesses. It is highly unlikely any competitor of WiredWest will guarantee access to at least 25Mbps broadband.

WiredWest proposes to charge $59 for 25Mbps or $75 for 1,000Mbps broadband. Digital phone service is $19 a month. An installation fee of $99 will also apply. That is not out of line with what cable companies and other gigabit providers have charged, and they have won a comfortable market share. Private cable and phone companies also continue to raise rates on broadband, if only because they can, providing additional competitive insulation.

MBI’s grants should also not be the end of the story. New York last week rescued up to $170 million from the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) to expand broadband deployment in unserved rural areas of New York State — money Verizon forfeited by expressing no interest in rural broadband expansion. That precedent opens the door for other states to recapture similar federal grants, including those that could target western Massachusetts where Verizon has also declined to accept CAF money. That could ease some of the money worries about WiredWest’s construction costs as well.

At the end of the day, area residents have turned up repeatedly at various events across the region holding signs supporting their choice in local providers: WiredWest. Nobody was holding up a sign hoping Comcast or Charter would be the company that finally brings broadband to their communities. The irony of using taxpayer dollars to fund Comcast in particular is not lost on their customers — many that loathe the company and wish they had another choice. Handing $20 million to that cable giant to expand in western Massachusetts guarantees their newest customers won’t have a choice either. Isn’t it time to give these communities what they want? They clearly want WiredWest.

Frozen in Time: Verizon’s Ultra Slow DSL Languishes On in Massachusetts

When the Berkshire Eagle asked readers to test their internet speeds and share the results, along with opinions about their broadband options, the newspaper hit a nerve.

Over 400 readers in western Massachusetts promptly responded, many with scathing stories about slow speeds and unresponsive customer service.

The newspaper preferred to call it “tortured testimony.”

“It is slow and getting slower,” wrote Bob Rosen, from Otis. “Many times it just says, ‘not responding.'”

It” is Verizon’s DSL — broadband for the masses of landline customers in Massachusetts unlucky enough not to have FiOS fiber to the home service available before Verizon decided to stop expanding its copper-replacement fiber network. For the last seven years, Verizon’s DSL has remained more or less “as-is,” with no significant service improvements or apparent expansion effort.

Source: The ConsumeristUnfortunately, as customer demand for bandwidth grows, performance drops unless providers continually invest in new equipment to manage demand appropriately. Customers in western Massachusetts report Verizon seems to be making do with what they already have, and speeds have suffered.

Douglas Mcnally of Windsor, a member of the Select Board and consultant whose job depends on a good internet connection told the newspaper he really doesn’t have a consistently reliable connection. One test showed a speed of 2.82Mbps, but a second one returned a speed result of 0.64Mbps. Barbara Craft-Reiss from Becket has a connection also topping out at 0.64Mbps.

In Dalton, a customer that repeatedly complained about his 1.5Mbps speed was told that was as good as Verizon DSL was going to get.

“I have had several communications with Verizon and they always say not to expect any more,” the reader told the newspaper. “At times it is so slow the web page expires before it comes up. There are many times it does not work at all.”

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband instead of waiting around for Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.

Verizon seemed to echo its “done with DSL” attitude to Robert Rosen who has subscribed since the 1990s at his home in the Otis Woodlands area.

“In the beginning, the signal was very strong. Every six months I would call Verizon and see if I could get a stronger signal. Sometimes it was boosted, however in the past several years I have been told by Verizon I am at max strength,” Rosen said.

But at least he could subscribe. Verizon customer service agents have warned some customers if they drop DSL service, they cannot come back. Bob Johnson dropped his 2Mbps Verizon DSL account — the one he inherited under the previous account-holder’s name.

“I was told that if I cancelled the previous owner’s account, I would not be able to get an account at all,” Johnson reported.

A Verizon spokesperson claimed DSL is still available in Verizon’s FiOS-less service areas, as long as the customer’s line passes a loop qualification test. Only ISDN has been decommissioned in certain service areas, the spokesperson claimed.

But Stop the Cap! has heard from countless Verizon customers who share stories of deteriorating performance and disinterest in improving service, and customer service agents won’t even sell DSL to customers without bundling landline phone service.

“They are just letting the old telephone network fall apart piece by piece,” claims John Landis, a Verizon DSL customer outside of Buffalo, N.Y. “The investment is just not clear anymore. When is the last time Verizon introduced a new service on their wired network, such as faster internet speeds? We’re living with a company where time has stopped, unless you are on Verizon Wireless.”

Verizon’s apparent disinterest in selling DSL broadband has proved to be a significant benefit for cable operators that continue to take market share from the phone company. Strategy Analytics reports cable companies added more than three million new subscribers from 2015 on. Cable operators now have a 62% broadband market share, compared to just 15% for DSL, a percentage that has dropped for years. (Fiber broadband now accounts for a 23% share.)

“The telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers, but we expect to see increased fiber deployments in the coming quarters, which should help AT&T and Verizon return to growth,” Jason Blackwell, director of Strategy Analytics’ Service Provider Strategies Service said last summer. But much of that growth seems to be targeted for urban and suburban areas, not rural areas where DSL is often the only available broadband technology.

Cable broadband is generally not available in rural areas.

Despite telco claims that wireless broadband alternatives will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, Blackwell is skeptical.

“The reality is fixed broadband is continuing to grow in the U.S., and not being replaced by mobile broadband as some have reported,” he claimed. “The cable operators are driving the growth with increased speeds and multiplay bundles.”

The availability of a cable competitor has helped some in western Massachusetts resolve their broadband problems, but only in communities where cable operators exist. Many western Massachusetts residents are still waiting for community-owned gigabit-capable fiber broadband through the WiredWest project.

In late 2015, politics from the governor’s office put a “pause” on all state “last-mile broadband” projects and a sudden policy shift required each town to own its own network infrastructure despite the widely expressed desire on the local level for a regional approach. More than a year later, the project to improve broadband across the western half of the state is still trapped by bureaucratic interference, allowing the state’s big cable and phone companies to continue the status quo with no alternatives on the immediate horizon.

As of late December, the project is gathering support for sending a resolution to state officials reaffirming their request to allow local communities involved in the project to determine their broadband future without onerous requirements from the governor’s office.

Without WiredWest, the future is not good. Unless Verizon changes its mind about broadband deployment in western Massachusetts or cable operators Charter and Comcast spontaneously expand their service areas, readers of the Berkshire Eagle can expect more of what staff writer Larry Parnass summed up in two words: extreme disappointment.

Charter Ready to Introduce HD and Internet Access on Berkshire Cable Systems… in 2016

lanesboroughIt is hard to imagine there are still cable systems serving customers with nothing more than a slim lineup of standard definition cable television channels in 2016, but not if you live in three Berkshire towns over the New York-Massachusetts border where Charter Communications will finally introduce HD television and internet service starting next week.

Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale all suffer from the pervasive lack of broadband common across western Massachusetts. But these communities, along with Charter’s cable system in nearby Chatham, N.Y., are benefiting from regulator-mandated upgrades as a condition of approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Charter Communications has almost no presence in New York, except for 14,000 customers in Plattsburgh and the seriously antiquated system in Chatham that isn’t too far from the dilapidated systems serving the Berkshires on the Massachusetts side of the border. Like in Chatham, customers in the Berkshires pay for service similar to what cable customers received in the 1980s – no video on demand, no internet access, and a capacity-strained system that lacks enough bandwidth to offer HD channels.

The upgrades will cost about $6,000 per customer — numbering 2,500 in Chatham and another 800 in the three towns in Massachusetts. Charter is paying the bill. Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make things easier for the cable operator, because it will extend fiber connections between the Charter systems and existing Time Warner Cable infrastructure nearby.

In Massachusetts, Charter’s upgrades require customers to install new set-top boxes in time for the switchover on Aug. 2. A week later, on Aug. 9, internet access will be available at the two speeds Charter traditionally offers — 60 and 100Mbps.

Most customers care a lot less about improved cable television and are more concerned about getting broadband. Western Massachusetts’ broadband problems have affected property values and kept businesses from relocating or expanding in the area. Few areas in the northeast have languished with inadequate internet access more than Massachusetts communities west of Springfield.

The large consortium of 44 communities working under WiredWest have spent years working towards community-owned fiber to the home service in the western half of the state, but the project ran into political interference at the state government level. Lanesborough had been part of the WiredWest collaborative effort, reports iBerkshires. With Charter’s upgrade, the community may decide to drop out of the project, even though it would likely deliver superior broadband service over what Charter will offer.

Another Reminder Wireless ISPs are Not a Good Choice if a Fiber Alternative is Possible

Phillip Dampier July 14, 2015 Broadband "Shortage", Broadband Speed, Canada, Community Networks, Consumer News, EastLink, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, WiredWest, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Another Reminder Wireless ISPs are Not a Good Choice if a Fiber Alternative is Possible
Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

Rationing Your Internet Experience: Stick to e-mail and web pages.

This week’s news that the alleged owner of a Wireless ISP serving parts of New England may have fled the country to avoid an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission on an unrelated digital currency matter has left about 1,000 Vermont customers of GAW Wireless with no certain future for their Internet Service Provider.

As the “Geniuses At Work” came under pressure from public accusations the company was running a scam on digital currency investors, so went the performance of GAW Wireless. In February, a two-week service outage left many customers without telephone and Internet service. This month, e-mail accounts stopped working for some and nobody appears to be answering the firm’s customer service line. Even Vermont’s Attorney General cannot find the owner.

While Wireless ISPs (WISPs) can be a good option for North America’s unserved rural communities, they are not always the best choice, especially as customers continue to gravitate towards high bandwidth applications like Netflix.

Some rural WISPs have kept up with customer demand and continue to offer good service. Others have educated customers about being a good steward of a limited resource by showing courtesy to other customers by self-limiting heavy traffic applications to off-peak hours.

But other providers have chosen usage-discouraging data caps or usage-based billing to cover up for their inadequate infrastructure investment. In Nova Scotia, Eastlink’s new 15GB monthly usage cap on rural customers is nothing short of Internet rationing, completely ignorant of the fact most customers have moved beyond the Internet applications Eastlink envisioned them using when it built its network in 2006. Nearly a decade later, it is ridiculous to suggest customers should be happy continuing to pay almost $50 a month for a 1.5Mbps connection designed for e-mail, basic web browsing, and occasional dabbling into downloads, music, and video.

Come for the view but don't stay for the broadband.

Come for the view but don’t stay for the wireless broadband.

Some angry customers suspect Eastlink is simply being greedy. We believe it is more likely Eastlink’s existing wireless network is no longer adequate for the needs of Nova Scotians (or practically anybody else in 2015). The evidence that congestion is the real problem was supplied by customers who have noticed the network’s performance has slowed over the last few years. That is a sign the network is either oversold — too many customers trying to share the same bandwidth limited resource — or has become congested because of the growth of Internet traffic generally. It might even be both.

Implementing draconian usage caps only alienates customers and suggests Eastlink wants to collect as much revenue as it can from a resource that should either be vastly upgraded or retired in favor of superior technology. We have not seen anything from Eastlink that suggests major upgrades are on the way. In fact, the only conclusion we can make from Eastlink’s public comments is they think equal access to an inadequate resource is fairer than actually upgrading it.

Eastlink claims nobody could have envisioned Internet traffic growth from the likes of Netflix. In fact, equipment manufacturers like 3Com and Cisco were issuing scare stories about Internet brownouts and future traffic exafloods since December, 1995 — the year before Eastlink planned its Nova Scotia wireless network. Smart network planners have kept up with demand, which has been made easier by technology improvements accompanying the increased traffic. A good ISP recognizes upgrades are continual and essential to keep up with customer needs. A bad ISP introduces a rationing usage cap and claims it is only trying to be fair to every customer.

Phillip "Fiber is Good for You" Dampier

Phillip “Fiber is Good for You” Dampier

Usage caps and usage-based billing have never been about “fairness.” We’ve seen all sorts of usage enforcement schemes imposed on customers since 2008 when Stop the Cap! was founded. In each instance, usage caps were only about the money. Eastlink customers will not see any rate decrease as a result of its rationing plan, giving users less value for their broadband dollar. If an Eastlink customer confines use of their high traffic applications to the overnight hours, when they would cause little or no congestion, they will still eat into their monthly usage allowance.

All the benefits of usage caps accrue to Eastlink, either by reducing traffic on its network and allowing the company to delay necessary upgrades, or by pocketing the inevitable overlimit fees, which may or may not go towards upgrades. In our experience, the case for spending capital on network upgrades has never depended on overlimit fees collected from subscribers squirreled away in a separate bank account.

This is why communities in Vermont, Nova Scotia and beyond should strongly consider investing in fiber optics for broadband delivery and consider wireless only for the least populated areas. A broadband project in rural western Massachusetts can offer a guide to resolving the ongoing problem of unserved or underserved communities ignored by commercial providers. Deprived of upgrades from Verizon and shunned by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the residents of these towns continue to vote overwhelmingly in favor of fiber optics.

The WiredWest approach is a solid solution. The initiative secures bond authorizations from each participating town in a public vote backed by deposits of $49 per household, held in escrow to be later used to cover the first month of broadband service when the service launches. Each town must have at least a 40% buy-in from residents, providing strong evidence the project has a solid customer base, is financially viable, and can recover construction costs and pay off the bonds estimated at $100-120 million within a reasonable amount of time. The state legislature contributed an additional $40 million dedicated to last mile infrastructure — the cost to wire each home or business. (In contrast, Nova Scotia and the federal government spent $34 million subsidizing the Eastlink wireless network in 2007 that has not aged well. Fiber optics is infinitely upgradable.) By choosing fiber optics, instead of getting rationed, slow speed, or no Internet service, WiredWest towns will be able to subscribe to 25Mbps for $49 a month, 100Mbps service for $79, or 1,000Mbps for $109 a month
.

In comparison, Eastlink charges $46.95 a month for “up to” 1.5Mbps with a 15GB cap and GAW Wireless (when working) charges $39.95/mo for “up to 7Mbps.”

Broadband Excitement Continues in Western Mass.; Big Support for WiredWest

Phillip Dampier June 3, 2015 Broadband Speed, Community Networks, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, WiredWest, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Broadband Excitement Continues in Western Mass.; Big Support for WiredWest
fiber wiredwest

WiredWest is a public co-op seeking to deliver fiber to the home broadband across western Massachusetts.

Despite the dreary drizzle, fog, and unseasonably cold weather that has plagued the northeast since last weekend, 191 residents of New Salem, Mass. crowded into a basement for the town’s annual meeting Monday night, largely with one issue in mind: better broadband.

A reporter from The Recorder noted Moderator Calvin Layton was surprised by the overwhelming vote for fiber broadband — 189 for and only one apparently against.

The town clerk for New Salem typically counts around 60 heads at such meetings, but this night was different because the community was voting to spend $1.5 million to bring broadband to a town completely ignored by Comcast and Verizon. That fact has hurt area property values and has challenged residents and business owners alike. The town is fed up with inaction by the state’s dominant phone and cable company, which has done nothing to expand access in western Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire,” said MaryEllen Kennedy, the chair of the town’s Broadband Committee.

New Salem isn’t alone.

Monterey passed its own bond authorization with a vote of 130 to 19, becoming the 10th consecutive town to vote in favor of bringing 21st century broadband to the region. The community of Beckett followed a day later.

Phillip "There are no broadband magic ponies" Dampier

Phillip “There are no broadband magic ponies” Dampier

Residents in 16 of the 17 towns asked so far to authorize the borrowing necessary to cover their community’s share of the fiber to the home project have usually done so in overwhelming majorities. But it has not been all good news. The town of Montgomery in Hampden County voted down paying its share by just two votes. Supporters claim low voter turnout may have done the project in, at least for the time being. A call for a new vote is underway.

Perhaps the most contentious debate over WiredWest continues in the small community of Hawley, where one activist has organized opposition for the project based on its cost to the community of 347. Hawley is in the difficult position of being a small community spread out across a lot of hills and hollows.  The cost for Hawley to participate in the fiber to the home project would be around $1 million, a figure many residents decided was out of their price range. Participation in WiredWest was shot down in a recent vote and the repercussions continue to this day in the opinion pages of The Recorder as residents fire back and forth at each other, sometimes with strident personal comments.

While easy to vote down participation in WiredWest, finding an alternative for Hawley has proved difficult.

Kirby “Lark” Thwing, a member of both the town finance and communications committees, is trying to find the cheaper broadband solution advocated by Hussain Hamdan, who has led the charge against WiredWest’s fiber to the home service in Hawley.

Thwing has run headfirst into what Stop the Cap! feared he would find — the rosy budget-minded alternatives suggested as tantalizingly within reach simply are not and come at a higher price tag than one might think.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Thwing is looking at a hybrid fiber/wireless solution involving a fiber trunk line run down two well-populated roads that could support fiber service for about half the homes in Hawley and lead to at least two large wireless towers that would reach most of the rest of town. He’s also hoping Hawley would still qualify to receive its $520,000 share of broadband grant money from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to help cover the alternative project’s costs.

If Hawley can use that money, Thwing predicts it will cover much of the construction cost of the fiber trunk line. After that, each homeowner would be expected to pay to bring fiber from the trunk line to their home, definitely not a do-it-yourself project that will cost at least several hundred dollars, not counting the cost of any inside wiring and a network interface device attached to each participating home. Residents should also expect to spend another $100 on indoor electronics including a receiver and optional router to connect broadband to their home computer and other devices.

But the expenses don’t stop there.

Thwing also has to consider the cost of the wireless towers and provisioning a wireless service to Hawley residents not immediately adjacent to the fiber trunk line. He will be asking residents if they are willing to pay an extra $25-50 a month ($300-600 a year) to pay down the debt service on the town’s two proposed wireless towers. It isn’t known if that fee would include the price of the Internet service or just the infrastructure itself.

As Thwing himself recognizes, if the total cost for the alternative approaches the $1 million the town already rejected spending on fiber to the home service for everyone, it leaves Hawley no better off.

As Stop the Cap! reported last month, we believe Hawley will soon discover the costs of the alternatives Mr. Hamdan has suggested are greater than he suspects and do not include the cost of service, billing and support. Fiber to the home remains the best solution for Hawley and the rest of a region broadband forgot. Other towns that want to believe a cheaper alternative is out there waiting to be discovered should realize if such a solution did exist, private companies would have already jumped in to offer the service. They haven’t.

At the same time, we cannot ignore there are small communities in western Massachusetts that will find it a real burden to pay the infrastructure costs of a fiber network when there are fewer residents across wide distances to share the costs.

That is why it is critical for the Federal Communications Commission to expand rural broadband funding opportunities to subsidize the cost of constructing rural broadband services in communities like Hawley.

At the very least, state officials should consider creative solutions that either spread the cost of network construction out over a longer term or further subsidizing difficult to reach areas.

There is strong evidence voters across western Massachusetts are not looking for a government handout and have more than stepped up to pay their fair share to guarantee their digital future, but some challenges can be insurmountable without the kind of help the FCC already gives to private phone companies that spend the money on delivering dismally slow DSL service. Western Massachusetts has demonstrated it can get a bigger bang for the buck with fiber to the home service — a far better use of Connect America Funds than spending millions to bring 3Mbps DSL to the rural masses.

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