The Little Town That Could — Broadband Update
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Not only could we start our own tiny town’s broadband system, we did it. In August, 2008, this town of 750 people voted to borrow $40,000 to start building a wireless broadband system that we hope will eventually serve the entire town. As it has turned out, we didn’t need to borrow — town financial officers found the funds without going to the bank for them. We got the necessary permits from the owners of two towers here, bought the equipment, got a couple of people trained to install the equipment, and turned on our first customers in March, 2009.
Eleven months later, we have about 75 households hooked up. That’s close to 1/3 of all the homes in town, and installations are continuing. It’s probably close to half of all the homes that have Internet connections. I know, because I’ve been there, that cable TV companies starting up would give their eye teeth to have such statistics. And that may cause us problems down the road.
The wireless service we offer is at least 10 times as fast as dialup, and three times as fast as Internet-by-satellite. Those of us who are lucky enough to live where we can catch the signal are happy with what we’ve got. But occasionally stuff happens to interfere with the service — heavy snow on the branches that our radio/receivers have to peek through to catch the signal, heavy leaves on trees in the summer, especially when it rains.
So, while we’re pleased, we’re even more excited about the prospect of forming a regional compact to establish a fiber optic network. About 30 towns in Western Massachusetts are working toward this goal. We’ve been inspired by members of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network . Representatives of the group met recently with folks from our 30 towns and told how they
are developing their system. Owned by 22 municipalities in eastern and central Vermont, it will operate without any local tax money.
EC Vermont had its private financing in place in September, 20o8, when the floor fell out of the stock market and investors pulled in their ears. Since then the organization has had a two-pronged approach: federal broadband stimulus funding and a remake of the investor panel — or perhaps there will be a combination of both. They’re mapping their region now, and expect soon to have construction underway.
Fiber is by far the fastest and most reliable of all Internet technologies. A fiber connection to the home can also carry cable TV and phone service, all at the same time, without slowing down any of the
services. A single strand of fiber could carry all the telephone calls going on all over the world at any given moment.
Interested Western Mass. towns will have an article on the 2010 Annual Town Meeting warrant asking their selectboards to join the Western Mass fiber initiative.
Before town meetings are asked to decide, a public information meeting will be held in each town, presented by local broadband committee members and members of the interlocal organization’s steering committee. It’s not necessary that all 30 towns decide to join at first. We’re sure we’ll have the critical mass we need to get going (about 60,000 population), even if we lack unanimity among all the towns.
Once the towns form their consortium, we’ll want to go to the state legislature to get a law formalizing our relationship. That’s where we can anticipate trouble. We plan a system that will leave room for cable companies, telephone companies, and even other Internet connection suppliers to share our fiber optic system. But the “incumbents,” the existing cable and phone companies — who have demonstrated not an iota of serving our remote areas — will be sure to object, and we’ll have to counter their lobbying efforts at the State House.
City legislators won’t get it, or they won’t care, or they’ll care more about the lobbyists than about us out here in the boonies. Our rural legislators, some of whom are still on dialup at home themselves, will be with us. I haven’t done a count of prospective votes yet; it’s ‘way early. I can’t conceive of our legislative petition being voted down, but I’m a born optimist, so what do I know? I know this: 30 towns in Massachusetts are fewer than 10% of all the municipalities in the state. There are 351 cities and towns here, and no unincorporated places. And 60,000 people in a state of 6.5 million? As my mother used to say, “You could stick them in your eye and have room left to see with.”
But the stakes here are so high it’s impossible to imagine failure. We’re looking at jobs, competitiveness in the Internet marketplace, distance learning, access to advanced medical care — the whole ball of wax that has transformed life in more populous places. We must prevail; we simply must.