Broadband: The Little Town That Could

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

My town of 750 people voted Monday night to borrow $40,000 and build the first high-speed Internet connection system in our area of Western Massachusetts.

We know about a USDA program meant to bring broadband to rural America.  Our information is that most of the money has gone to suburban communities in Texas, and we don’t have a professional grant administrator to chase down any money that might be left.

We’re aware that the Massachusetts governor just signed a $40 million act establishing the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, to figure out how to bring broadband to unserved and underserved towns. We’re also aware that the money will go to vendors to develop regional systems and we don’t have the patience to wait the two or three years it will take for anyone to get around to thinking about maybe serving us.

We’re a tiny town with lots of hills and trees, terrible phone lines, and little hope of anyone laying fiber optic cable — which costs $20,000 to $40,000 per mile — along our 52+ miles of roads, many of which pass undeveloped, state-owned forests. (The state owns more than half this town’s land, which makes us nature rich and tax poor.)

The selectboard (New English for town council) appointed three people to a committee to figure out what to do.  I’m one of the three. I’m the least technically adept; my skill is translating from Geek to English.

We’ve figured out what to do, and Monday night persuaded about a hundred of our 515 registered voters to let us do it.

Some of us get onto the Internet by satellite, at speeds roughly 20 times as fast as our neighbors who still connect by telephone. But satellite isn’t all that fast, and when the weather is foul we often can’t get on at all. We’re too far from the nearest telephone exchange to get DSL, which is nearly twice as fast as satellite. None of the adults in town expects to see cable TV here in our lifetime.

For many of us, using the Internet is not just a matter of e-mail and surfing the web.  It’s where we work. It’s where we do business, buying the materials we need to make things, then selling what we make. It’s how we could cut down on commuting time if we had a high-speed connection. It’s where our kids research their homework assignments — at speeds vastly slower than the other towns in our regional school district.

The lack of high-speed Internet detracts from the value of our homes, making them harder to sell when we want or need to.

Sometimes, small towns in flat places pick up a connection from a larger town by a fast T1 (wired) connection and then send it to houses wirelessly, the way a cell phone communicates. But wireless signals travel line-of-sight — if you can’t see the place you want to send the signal, it won’t get there. In most parts of this town, line of sight is less than a quarter of a mile. Cell phone companies brag about how few dropped calls they have. Here you can’t go a half a mile without losing a wireless signal.  That’s why we have no cell phone service here.

But this town has two outstanding features: Mount Grace (which would be considered a mountain only in New England — its summit is 1,617 feet above sea level) and an unused cell tower on private property, built on spec in about 2000, which you can see from the fire tower on the top of Mount Grace.

The photo above was taken from the platform of the Mount Grace cell tower, looking at Mouth Wachusett, 2,018 feet above sea level and within line of sight from Mount Grace. There’s a tower on Mount Wachusett that serves Internet connectivity to another town that has a municipal electric system. That town has more capacity that it needs; we’re going to buy some of that capacity and send it by radio to subscribers in our town. Radio waves do not require line of sight, and they also go through leaves.

We will have a vendor install radio equipment on the fire and cell towers, send the police cruiser with a laptop and radio receiver around town to see where the signal actually goes (the estimate is about 80% of the town), and then invite about 15 brave souls to invest between $250 and $500 in a radio receiver to get the signal into their homes. One member of our committee has volunteered to do the initial installations.

The first subscribers, who will need a certain amount of technical savvy themselves, and perhaps a lot of patience, will be asked to contribute $50 a month for the service. For this phase of the project, we’ll be taking the satellite internet signal from the town library — which means we’ll still be dependent on good weather for our connection, hence the need for patience. It may not always be obvious whether a failure to connect is caused by weather or a problem with the radios.

Once we’re satisfied that the system is working the way we expect it to, we’ll start getting the wireless signal from Mount Wachusett, and offering subscriptions to the rest of the town where the signal can reach. We’ll use any profits the system brings in to extend the radio signal to the parts of town that don’t yet get it, then we’ll start paying back the town for paying off the loan.

At some point, our little system is going to look pretty attractive to a vendor, who won’t have to build the system but can make money operating it, providing technical support, and handling billing. Since a for-profit company can’t get up on the fire tower, our town will still be in the picture, licensing the system to the vendor and collecting a fee in return.

So we think what starts out as an investment in a new kind of infrastructure will turn out to be a modest source of revenue for the town. Even more importantly, more residents will be able to work here, have home-based businesses here, do distance learning here, and all the other kinds of things people living in the 21st Century should be able to do.

I’ve gone into this much detail because I suspect some folks who read this may want know more for the benefit of their towns. If you leave a comment to that effect below, I’ll put you in touch with our town’s part-time administrative coordinator, who told me this morning he’s willing to answer questions.

The Greenfield Recorder, which rarely covers our town, today leads with a story about the project. The CBS affiliate TV station in Springfield, the state’s second largest city, 50 miles away, sent a producer out this morning to do a story, which will air tonight on the six o’clock news.  We’re having our 15 minutes of fame, I guess.  But the delight at having figured out how to do this, and then actually doing it, will last a lot longer than that.

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10 Responses to “Broadband: The Little Town That Could”

  1. There are so many misconceptions about why broadband needs to be available to small towns all over America.  Many people operate under the assumption that satellite is just as good, if not better and reading what you have to say makes it clear that this is an issue in need of closer inspection and to have full throttle advocacy to make broadband happen all over the US.  Hooray for your small town as they seem to be taking the bull by the horns.   Keep us posted!

  2. I love it! 21st century New England barn-raising!
    Dor (in a neighboring town)

  3. While I don’t live in exactly in a back forty, it isn’t suburban either. North of the Golden Gate, we have large lots and only recently got Comcast cable which gobbled up the broadband radio waves which was the only way I could get NPR, for one.
    We limped along as Comcast didn’t want to spend the money on us. They wanted denser residential developments. I do now have decent cable and Airport which has made working from home a delight.
    But it took forever not to have the network fail every other day. Good luck.
    I’ve missed you through the NWU. I too am lapsed.

  4. There are all sorts of efforts like yours to bring broadband to rural areas.
    One in WV got recognition from NPR, but don’t know how active it presently is-
    Another is in rural VA and used mircowave towers to link the schools together and to larger cities in NC with their greater backbone connections.
    These might give a few ideas.  Good luck.

  5. I enjoyed reading about the Warwick broadband project. I am wondering if you could give us an update on how things are working out. Thanks!

  6. We have all the equipment and permissions we need.  Now all we need is a break in the weather. We’ve had too much snow, sub-zero weather, and high winds lately.

    The crew that will do the actual installation on the tower hopes to get up the hill next Monday (2/2 — Groundhog Day.) Then we hook up the town hall offices and the police cruiser, so we can prove that the system actually works and discover where we can start installations and where we’ll need additional equipment to get the signal to subscribers (the town is very hilly and full of tall trees, both of which cause some interference.)

    I’ll write a new post when I have more to report.  Thanks for asking.

  7. […] that’s keeping my tiny (pop. 750) town from hooking folks up to our broadband network is the weather: Until the weekend’s heat wave, we had a 2-3 foot snowpack, daytime temps in […]

  8. […] expand their services. Both companies have lost most, if not all, of their subscribers in my town, The Little Town That Could, which voted last year to appropriate $40,000 to start our own […]

  9. […] 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 […]

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