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Mass. Taxpayers Give Comcast $4 Million to Expand Monopoly Broadband Service

Phillip Dampier September 11, 2018 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video, WiredWest Comments Off on Mass. Taxpayers Give Comcast $4 Million to Expand Monopoly Broadband Service

State and local officials gather to welcome Comcast’s state-funded service expansion in western Massachusetts. (From left to right: MBI chairman Peter Larkin; Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; Michael Parker, senior vice president for Comcast’s Western New England region; Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito; Kevin Hart, former chair of the Montague Broadband Committee; and Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington.) (Image: MBI )

Two years after Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker imposed a state-mandated “pause” on WiredWest, a collaborative, multi-community, publicly owned fiber to the home broadband network for western Massachusetts, Comcast is celebrating the introduction of expanded service in the towns of Buckland, Chester, Conway, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham and Shelburne, made possible with a $4 million taxpayer-funded grant to the nation’s largest cable operator.

While state officials continually questioned the economics of WiredWest, which by that time enrolled more than 7,000 eager would-be customers with $49 deposits, Comcast repeatedly declared it was “uneconomic” to provide broadband service to most rural western Massachusetts communities, at least until state officials paid the cable giant millions of dollars to reach 1,089 previously unserved homes and businesses in the nine towns, effectively giving Comcast a broadband monopoly.

“We were pleased to work with Comcast, who met the two-year timeline we set to deliver critical 21st-century broadband connections to more homes and businesses,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in a press release this week. She called the project “a great example of a public-private partnership” that would help resolve rural Massachusetts broadband problems.

WiredWest could not have met Polito’s two-year timeline, primarily because the collaborative has been blocked and ambushed repeatedly after Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick left office. State officials in Boston and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), responsible for funding broadband initiatives, began a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the project shortly after Gov. Baker took office, culminating in recommendations from then-MBI director Eric Nakajima imploring towns not to sign agreements with WiredWest, and eventually withholding critical funding from the broadband cooperative, questioning its governance and operating model.

It soon became clear Gov. Baker preferred an industry solution to the rural broadband problem, which caused broadband advocate Susan Crawford to slam the decision in early 2017.

“This is the story of a dramatic failure of imagination and vision at the state level: Governor Charlie Baker’s apparent insistence that Massachusetts relegate small towns to second-rate, high-priced, monopoly-controlled (and unregulated) communications capacity,” Crawford wrote. “It’s a slow-rolling tragedy that will blight western Massachusetts for generations.”

A divide and conquer campaign to peel off communities from the WiredWest project has been underway for years. Earlier this year, MBI dangled $3.1 million in grants available exclusively to Charter Communications to build out its network in several towns in the region. When asked if those taxpayer dollars would be available to publicly owned broadband projects like WiredWest, Peter Larkin, MBI’s current board chairman, responded “no.”

Despite the roadblocks, many of the communities staying loyal to the WiredWest concept have hired Westfield Gas & Electric’s ‘Whip City Fiber’ division to help design and construct their own fiber to the home networks, which will be superior to what Charter or Comcast plans for the region.

For exasperated residents and businesses who have waited more than four years for broadband, the politics and constant delays have become secondary issues to getting broadband… from somewhere. That may explain why Kevin Hart, who frequently objected to Comcast’s proposal to build an inferior copper-fiber network while chairing the Montague Broadband Committee, suddenly switched sides and praised the Comcast project this week for its timely introduction of broadband service.

In contrast, Montague Broadband Committee member Robert Steinberg in 2016 called Comcast’s cash infusion from taxpayers “corporate welfare.”

WWLP in Springfield reports several towns are getting expanded cable and broadband service from Comcast. (1:21)

Corruption? Massachusetts Giving Preferential Treatment, Taxpayer Dollars to Charter/Spectrum

The head of a state-funded group with direct ties to the Massachusetts governor’s office told local officials in New Marlborough that the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) “believes in cable companies” and is favoring one — Charter Communications, with an exclusive offer to invest millions in taxpayer dollars to entice Charter to bring its Spectrum cable service to town, while telling would-be competitors the money is only available to Charter Communications.

MBI was created in 2008, originally tasked with investing $50 million in state funds to help resolve the digital divide between eastern and western Massachusetts. MBI also manages the publicly owned, middle mile fiber optic network that towns in western Massachusetts are depending on as part of their plans to connect local residents to the internet.

In 2015, MBI suddenly yanked support for WiredWest, the region’s most robust and credible player in connecting residential homes and businesses. The group had spent several years organizing and educating some two dozen largely rural communities, and was well on its way to constructing a public broadband network for the towns that agreed to sign on to the project. Since 2015, a series of political disputes, bureaucracy, and confusion has stalled broadband expansion.

Peter Larkin, MBI’s board chairman, has been roundly criticized in many western Massachusetts communities for continuing MBI’s slow and cumbersome bureaucracy, frequent policy shifts, and most recently playing favorites with cable companies. Ignoring his own organization’s systemic failures and bureaucratic roadblocks, Larkin has recently leveraged community frustration with the slow pace of progress as an excuse to hand two of the nation’s largest cable operators public taxpayer dollars to complete a project MBI was directly responsible for stalling.


Under the latest proposal, outlined last Friday, Charter Communications would receive $3.1 million to expand Spectrum cable service to at least 96% of the community of New Marlborough. Originally, the town was responsible for $1.44 million in cost sharing with the state, a substantial sum for a community with a population just over 1,500 residents. Larkin last week offered to split the cost to the town, with the town’s share reduced to $720,000 — payable directly to Charter.

“The state is willing to cut the gap in half to make this project go,” Larkin said.

But that deal appears to be good only if the town selects Charter Communications. Over the last year, MBI has been allocating public taxpayer dollars towards private cable and phone companies, especially Comcast and Charter, to get the companies to agree to expand their cable systems in areas both have ignored for decades. WiredWest’s proposal made towns partners in the project. Larkin’s offer suggests taxpayers should pay up to 50% of the expansion costs, while Charter keeps 100% of the revenue and profits.

In the past, MBI’s financial carrots have been enough to get the two cable companies to expand using state matching funds alone, but as the town’s Broadband Committee Chairman Richard Long told the Berkshire Eagle after the meeting, he thinks this is the first time an unserved town in central or western Massachusetts will have to contribute local taxpayer funds as well just to get service from a cable company.

Larkin’s hard sell for Charter raised eyebrows among some in the town, especially after Larkin offered to use state funds to also finance their $720,000 portion of the deal over as much as a decade. Larkin claimed he wanted to get the project done and wanted to be helpful.

“The state may spend moneys or engage in other activities that benefit or incentivize private businesses in order to promote such [economic] development and it may authorize or partner with its cities and towns to do likewise,” Larkin recently wrote in a letter to towns offering to help them get negotiations going with the cable companies.

Town resident Dave Travis called Larkin’s offer something else.

“Call me a whistleblower, concerned citizen, activist for fairness, justice and democracy, but for Massachusetts Broadband Institute to show such blatant preferential treatment [to Charter] when there are qualified, experienced local options feels like corruption, and it needs some serious daylight,” Travis wrote.

WiredWest’s Tim Newman exposed just how far Larkin was willing to go to bat for Charter.

“Is the generosity you’re presenting to our town on behalf of Charter the same generosity if the town were to build its own network?” he asked Larkin.

“We do believe in the cable companies … we think it’s a value worth leaning in a little bit harder for,” he said, suggesting Charter has the financial ability to complete the project.

“So, the short answer is ‘no’ — the $720,000 would not be available?” Newman pressed.

“No,” Larkin answered.

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

Phillip Dampier January 31, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Comcast/Xfinity, Community Networks, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, WiredWest Comments Off on 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.


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.

Legislators Seek $10 Million ‘Incentive’ for Comcast Broadband Expansion in Rural Massachusetts

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative was officially formed by charter member towns. All member towns passed two town votes to form a Municipal Light Plant, under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 164. This step is required to join the Cooperative as a voting member. Towns shown below are official voting members of the WiredWest Cooperative. The town of Montgomery has also recently become a member. Requirements for new towns including being contiguous and directly accessible by road from another WiredWest member town, and less than 50% served by cable broadband. New members also must be voted in by a majority of the Board of Directors.

The WiredWest Cooperative
Towns shown above are official voting members of the WiredWest Cooperative. The town of Montgomery has also recently become a member. Requirements for new towns including being contiguous and directly accessible by road from another WiredWest member town, and less than 50% served by cable broadband.

Although plans to offer publicly owned fiber to the home service in 42 western Massachusetts communities are moving forward, a proposed $10 million taxpayer-funded incentive to encourage Comcast to expand cable service in western Massachusetts could mean the cable giant might get to some of those communities first.

Reps. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), Paul Mark (D-Cuba) and Sens. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst) and Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield) have filed an amendment to Gov. Deval Patrick’s $40 million community broadband bond bill requesting a $10 million incentive be included to underwrite Comcast’s expenses to expand cable service into areas the company has long declared unprofitable.

“It’s challenging, because you cannot overbuild a new broadband network where there is existing service,” Kulik told The Recorder. “What we’re proposing is to add language to this bill, to provide incentive money to expand cable service.  The partial cable towns aren’t eligible for federal funds. Carving out a way to reach out to these towns and extend cable seems a better way to do this.”

The dozens of communities participating in the WiredWest community broadband consortium have waited years for better broadband service. Rural western Massachusetts has been largely bypassed by Verizon, which only offers limited DSL service to some customers. Dominant cable provider Comcast primarily serves denser neighborhoods in selected towns.

Life is particularly complicated for the handful of communities that have some service from Verizon and/or Comcast, because almost all federal broadband grants are available only to communities that don’t have Internet access. These partially served areas, dubbed “cable towns,” are frustrated by government grants that only direct funding to areas where no service is available and are on the receiving end of endless complaints from local residents suffering broadband envy, knowing a neighbor up the street has had cable service for 30 years while many others are left in limbo.



In August, Chris Saner of Huntington told the newspaper Comcast’s cable line ends 1.4 miles down the road from his house. The cable company would be happy to extend service to the roadway in front of his home for $24,000. If Saner had to sell his home, that investment might be mandatory to help find a buyer. Saner should know, as he works in real estate. Prospective buyers tell him, “don’t even show me anything where there’s no cable.”

Broadband access has become so critical, some don’t care whether they get it from WiredWest’s future fiber network or Comcast’s coax.

Fiber broadband “is lobster and filet mignon. Cable is hamburger, but give us hamburger —we’re starving out here,” Saner said.

The $10 million proposal from the four Massachusetts Democrats could bring faster cable Internet service for some residents, but could also potentially undercut fiber access down the road.

Comcast isn’t likely to expand service on its own, citing Return On Investment formulas that make expansion unprofitable. A $10 million incentive could resolve some of those cost concerns, but critics call it corporate welfare.

Robbie Leppzer, a Wendell documentary filmmaker who has been involved in the struggle to improve broadband in western Massachusetts for years, suggests that taxpayer funds would be better spent in the public sector, “where towns and their residents have more say in the process.”

Comcast-Logo“Personally, I would love to see a nonprofit, community-based solution because it would be a more effective use of money, and it would keep it in the fiber-optic realm,” Leppzer told the newspaper. “While [coaxial cable] may be adequate for now, it will not meet the needs of the 21st century.”

Ironically, western Massachusetts may eventually get the fastest Internet speeds in the state from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s $71.5 million middle-mile network, now 95 percent complete. MBI’s priority is to build the regional fiber network and provision it for institutional customers including municipal buildings, schools, hospitals, libraries, fire and police departments. Once complete, the network’s second phase involves expanding access to the public.

MBI-MTC-logo@1xThe WiredWest consortium will be the public-facing part of the project, responsible for marketing high-bandwidth, affordable Internet, phone, high-definition television services and ancillary services to residents and businesses. WiredWest wants to build a 1,952-mile fiber-to-the-home network off MBI’s regional fiber backbone and institutional network.

munifiberOne of the most common questions from eager would-be customers is exactly when the fiber network will be finished and open for business to the public. Funding remains the biggest impediment. The cost of wiring residents for fiber service across the 42-town consortium ranges from $70 million to $130 million. It’s a substantial sum for small communities to cover, but the project does enjoy economy of scale that could ultimately save taxpayer dollars.

In Leverett, which has been building a fiber-to-the-home network on its own, the price tag for the 1,900 residents is $3.6 million — the amount of the bond secured to launch the project. Leverett residents will cover the costs of the fiber network through a tax increase that will amount to $295 a year over 20 years for a home assessed at $278,700.

The state can continue to budget about $40 million annually to gradually connect residents to the WiredWest fiber network or find Comcast expansion a better choice at a quarter of the price in some communities. It could even fund both. For some elected officials, getting broadband to communities using any means necessary is the primary goal. Downing thinks the western half of the state has waited long enough for broadband, noting the improvement initiative started in 2008. He wants the project finished before Patrick leaves office.

“We should all recognize that 18 months from now is the end of this administration,” Downing said. “And there is no guarantee that the next governor will share the same commitment for this project.”

[flv]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Viodi Broadband – Unique to Each Locale 11-13-13.mp4[/flv]

The western Massachusetts middle-mile/fiber to the home project is being developed in cooperation with Axia Technology Partners, a consulting, engineering, and construction firm. Tim Scott talks to Viodi.tv about Axia’s role as the operator for the Massachusetts community network. (7:45)

Western Massachusetts Fiber Network Underway, But Who Will Sell Service to Consumers?

If they build it, will Verizon, Time Warner Cable, or Comcast come?

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has just received a major shipment of cable it will use to construct part of its 1,300-mile fiber optic network, designed to provide better-than-dialup service to over 120 communities in western and north central Massachusetts.  That is, if providers show any interest in selling access to it.

The news that the broadband blockade in the western half of the state may finally come to an end is being trumpeted by local newspapers and TV newscasts from Springfield.  WSHM used the occasion to celebrate with current AOL dial-up user Ryan Newhouser, of Worthington:

A high-speed informational highway will be set up with thousands of miles of high-speed fiber optic cables. Those fibers will now be installed on utility polls across Western Mass.

Now residents sitting at their computers in frustration can finally look forward to high-speed internet access.


As Stop the Cap! first explored earlier this year, the new fiber network is good news for western Massachusetts.  But it alone will not deliver service to the masses who desperately want faster Internet access.

The incumbent phone and cable companies have certainly not shown much interest.  Verizon treats western Massachusetts much the same way it served its landline customers in the rest of northern New England (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.)  The company’s landline network was allowed to deteriorate along with Verizon’s interest in providing service in the largely rural states.  Eventually, it sold its operations north of Massachusetts to FairPoint Communications.  Comcast and Time Warner Cable are missing in action in many parts of the region as well.  As big phone and cable companies concentrate investments in more urban areas like Boston, many residents in places like Worthington can’t buy broadband service at any price.

MBI optimistically hopes the presence of its new fiber backbone and middle-mile network will change all that.  But outside of AT&T’s apparent interest it to provide service to its cell towers, there has been no publicly-expressed enthusiasm by Verizon or cable operators to begin serious investment in broadband expansion across the region.

The Last Mile Network Challenge

So what is holding western Massachusetts back?  The same thing that keeps broadband out of rural areas everywhere — the “last-mile” problem.  Traditionally, operators target urban and suburban areas for their investments because the construction costs — wiring up your street/home/business — can be recouped more easily when divided between a pool of potential customers.  Every provider has their own “return on investment” formula — how long it will take for a project to pay for itself and begin to return profit.  If your street has 100 homes on it, the chances of recouping costs are much higher than in places where your nearest neighbor needs binoculars to see your house.  Pass the ROI challenge and providers will invest capital to wire your street.  Fail it and you go without (or pay $10,000 or more to subsidize construction costs yourself.)

That is why eastern Massachusetts has plentiful broadband and the comparatively rural western half often does not.

MassBroadband 123 is the state’s solution to the pervasive lack of access across the western half of The Bay State.  It will consist of a fiber backbone and “middle mile” network, solving two parts of a three-part broadband problem.  The project’s commitment to deliver open access to institutions and commercial ISPs across the region is partly thanks to the availability of broadband grant money, particularly from the federal government.

Projects similar to MBI’s MassBroadband 123 typically include the hoped-for-outcome that private companies will step up and invest to ultimately make service available to end users.  Unfortunately, large incumbent providers often remain uncommitted to wiring the last-mile, and communities promised ubiquitous broadband end up with an expensive institutional network that only serves local government, public safety, schools, libraries, and health care facilities.

Thankfully, it does not appear MBI is depending on Verizon, which has shown no interest in spending significant capital on its legacy landline network or cable operators that are unlikely to break ground in new areas.

Communities are increasingly learning if they don’t have service today, the only real guarantee they will get it is by providing it themselves.  That is where WiredWest comes in.  It is a community-powered partnership — a co-op for broadband — pooling resources from 22 independent towns (with 18 more expected to join) to build out that challenging last mile, and deliver future-proof fiber to the home service.  No last generation DSL, slow and expensive fixed wireless, or limited capacity coaxial cable networks are involved.

WiredWest Members

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.

Most of the construction costs for the new network will likely come from municipal bonds, because government grants typically exclude last mile network funding.  Commercial providers often lobby against municipal-funded networks as “unfair competition,” a laughable concept in long-ignored western Massachusetts, where Verizon pitches slow speed DSL, if anything at all.

WiredWest compares rural broadband with rural electrification.  Community-owned co-ops provide service where few private companies bothered to show interest:

Think back to the rural electrification of America. Then, as now, it wasn’t profitable enough for private companies to build out electrical service to rural communities. Imagine where those communities would be today if the government hadn’t stepped in to help fund this essential service – which over time has sustained itself and become a profitable enterprise.

Rural fiber-to-the-home is affordable when you use an appropriate financing and business model that isn’t subject to the same short-term measures of profitability as a private company. A municipal model for example, allows capital investment that can be written off over a longer period of time.

This type of business model isn’t limited to community-owned broadband.  Other countries that treat broadband as an essential utility have, in some cases, boosted broadband beyond a simple cost/benefit “ROI” analysis.

Constructing a broadband network for western Massachusetts still presents some formidable challenges, however:

  1. There is a serious imbalance in government grant programs.  A largesse of government funding for institutional broadband has delivered scandalously underused Cadillac-priced networks communities, libraries and schools cannot afford to operate themselves once the grant money ends.  Meanwhile, funding to cushion the cost of wiring individual homes and businesses is extremely scarce.  Isn’t it time to divert some of that money towards the most difficult problem to overcome — wiring the last mile?
  2. Government impediments to community broadband must be eliminated.  Repeal laws that restrict public broadband development.  Early experiments in municipal telecom networks have taught valuable lessons on how to operate networks efficiently and effectively.  But the broadband industry engages in scare tactics that highlight failures of older public projects like community Wi-Fi in an effort to keep superior publicly-owned fiber-to-the-home networks out of their markets.
  3. The public is not always engaged on the broadband issue and accepts media reports that misunderstand institutional broadband as a solution for those stuck using dial-up.  No matter how good a network is, if the “last mile” problem remains unsolved, the closest consumers like Mr. Newhouser will get to fiber service is looking at the wiring on a nearby telephone pole.  In many communities, fiber broadband paid for by public tax dollars is only accessible at the local public library.  Taxpayers must demand more access to networks they ultimately paid for out of their own pockets, and should support existing public broadband initiatives wherever practical.

[flv width=”640″ height=”380″]http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSHM Springfield Broadband internet coming to western Mass 12-8-11.mp4[/flv]

WSHM in Springfield says if you don’t have broadband in western Massachusetts now, it should be coming to your area soon.  But will it?  (3 minutes)

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