Hilltowns face steep Internet costs

 

Greenfield Recorder 02/24/2015, Page A01

Ask state for help bridging gap to get high-speed service

By DIANE BRONCACCIO Recorder Staff

While some hilltown residents say the WiredWest broadband initiative is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring high-speed Internet into their sparsely populated towns, the smallest, unserved towns fear that, even with the state’s $40 million “last mile” funding, they can’t afford their estimated share of the cost.

Colrain selectmen have sent a letter to state legislators, saying Colrain’s estimated $4.5 million price tag is too much for this town of 1,500 residents and will raise the average tax bill by about $417 per year.

Colrain’s letter asks the state to fund the entire project, at an estimated cost of $60 million to $79 million more. The letter says the “last mile” is a vital economic development project for the WiredWest Communities, which have “supported expensive and extensive projects in other parts of the state, through their tax payments, in the spirit of economic development.”

Town Coordinator Kevin Fox said the letter resulted in a conversation with an aide to Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, but has not resulted in any written response from any legislators.

Hawley followed Colrain, with a letter to Gov. Charles Baker seeking a cost-adjustment for towns that would otherwise pay more than the $4,127 average cost-per-household or Colrain’s solution — for the state to finance the total build-out.

Hawley’s letter requests legislation to “fill the gap” between what the smallest towns can afford and what is needed to complete the broadband project. “The ultimate irony is that … those communities that are least able to afford to get networked are the smaller, low-population- density unserved towns (that) the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative was designed to help. The current funding plan pits towns against each other, as each jostles to make the cost distribution system a little less expensive per household for their piece of the project.”

Out of the 15 towns that will pay above the average $4,175 cost per household, nine have populations below 350, according to the letter from Hawley selectmen.

Kirby “Lark” Thwing said Hawley’s share of the fiber-optic network could cost about $7,792 per household, with 48 miles of road and only 339 residents. In Hawley, there are only 158 occupied homes that could become potential WiredWest subscribers and shoulder any tax increase. Also, about 60 percent of Hawley’s land is either untaxed state forest land or land in conservation restrictions.

Hawley’s letter included a cost-per-town graph, based on estimates released in December. According to those calculations, Monroe, with 100 people, would pay almost $10,000 per housing unit for the broadband build-out and Rowe would pay about $6,565 per household.

At this year’s annual town meetings, the 32 WiredWest towns that are unserved by any form of broadband will be asked to authorize the borrowing of a share of the cost to build a fiber-optic infrastructure accessible by all homes. That town meeting vote will require a two-thirds majority approval and possibly a debt-exclusion vote on town election ballots.

State Rep. Paul Mark said he’s heard about the cost issues informally from Thwing. “If the towns made a request, I would try to fight for something in the budget. But it’s going to be a tough ask for this year — in light of the fact that we got $50 million for this last year,” he said, referring to overall broadband funding and incentive money to build out cable Internet access in some unserved and underserved towns. He said that requests for more state money could stall the momentum. “We need to keep the process going,” he said.

WiredWest representatives say that profits from the resulting Internet service subscribers could offset the buildout costs, if enough people sign up for service. Also, the services offered through this municipal cooperative could save residents money on what they already pay for Internet, TV and phone service.

Glenn Cardinal, of WiredWest’s executive committee and a Mohawk Trail Regional School Committee member, said the borrowing authority voted on at annual town meeting wouldn’t be used for a few years. “Once MBI (the Massachusetts Broadband Institute) knows which towns are ‘in,’ the state could spend a year and a half for the engineering,” he pointed out. “Towns won’t be asked for the money for at least two years.”

Cardinal said the money wouldn’t be borrowed all at once, but incrementally, as the build-out progresses. He said member towns may not have to pay off any debt — if they get enough subscribers for the fiber-optic Internet/telephone service.

To be part of the fiber-optic build-out, towns must get town-meeting approval for a bond, with a two-thirds majority vote and have at least 40 percent of townspeople sign up in advance for service. They must pay a $49 advance deposit, which will be kept in escrow, then used for the first month’s bill. If not enough residents sign up for the service, the town won’t be part of the build-out and its bond bill wouldn’t be spent.

Cardinal said signing up 40 percent of all 10,000 households in the unserved towns was calculated to be “the break even” point, collectively, for all the WiredWest towns without cable Internet access.

Cardinal said that MBI is reviewing municipal maps to verify occupied homes and buildings that could potentially want Internet. For instance, house-less roads going through state forest land or leading to old cemeteries wouldn’t have to be wired. “The numbers are being reworked, based on the new mapping,” he said.

Al Canali, Heath’s representative to WiredWest, said he thinks the goal of signing only 40 percent of the town population is “conservative.” He said he wouldn’t be surprised in Heath’s subscription rate is between 60 percent to 80 percent. He pointed out that DSL (digital subscriber line) is no longer available to new customers in Heath.

Furthermore, Heath residents who now pay $225 per month for a “bundle” that includes satellite-based Internet, a Verizon phone line and DirectTV will be paying $150 for that same combination of services through the WiredWest plan — for a $75 per month savings that could offset a possible tax increase for the town’s bond bill. Also, Canali said, young families are not moving to Heath, and houses aren’t selling easily because prospective buyers want high-speed Internet service.

According to WiredWest spokeswoman Monica Webb, there are now 32 towns that are planning to vote on bond bills for broadband infrastructure this spring. Seven “partially served” cable towns are working with MBI to negotiate with Comcast Cable for expanded cable service. Three member towns, Leverett, Princeton and Alford have built or are building their own fiber networks.

Webb said she had asked legislators about additional state funding and was told the getting more money “was extremely unlikely.”

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277