The Fiber Cometh
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Here in Tiny Town (at the end of this post I’ll stop being coy abut the town’s real name) our locally built and operated broadband enterprise is profitable, and we expect to have paid back the $40,000 the August 2008 town meeting voted to lend us by some time in 2012.
There are still families in town eager to subscribe, but we’re running out of places our wireless signal can reach. Expanding the system is possible, but there’s a lot to figure out.
If we spend subscriber fees to buy the needed equipment, that delays the day when we’ve paid off our debt to the town, and we’re aware that not all taxpayers benefit equally from having lent us the $40,000.
We may be able to obtain a state grant to buy what we need, but that means a ton of paperwork and all three members of the broadband committee (of which I’m one) are self-employed, and if we don’t work we don’t earn.
That leaves the proposal writing to the town’s part-time administrative coordinator, and he’s as busy as a one-armed paperhanger with the hives. We’ll figure it out, but there’s another consideration.
The regional fiber optic project I wrote about earlier is on its way to becoming a reality. The organization I helped form starting last February has named itself WiredWest and is a couple of weeks away from its first meeting as a nascent municipally-owned non-profit company that will provide the fastest, most reliable Internet access possible to a wide swath of Western Massachusetts.
Annual Town Meeting season ends in Massachusetts at the end of June. Special town meetings can be called at any time, but by law Massachusetts towns must have their annual meeting between March and June. Town meeting is to New England towns as the state legislature is to New England states; it makes the laws for the jurisdiction, sets the budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, elects town officers (some towns do this on a separate election day, but it’s still part of town meeting)
In a town like mine, where there is no place other than the transfer station (more sanitary than a dump but less user-friendly) where people can bump into each other, Annual Town Meeting (ATM) is also, like our Memorial Day observance, a major social event.
This year, 49 Western Massachusetts towns were asked to place a identical article on their ATM warrant (outside New England that would be “an item on their agenda“, but since towns outside New England don’t have ATMs we stick to our traditional vocabulary with something approaching pride.) The article calls for the town to consider joining the corporation that WiredWest will become. It’s not binding; if a town doesn’t like what it finds during discussions about governance and policy, it can simply walk away. But it’s not likely any will, and it’s a sure thing if any does, we’ll still have the population numbers we need to move forward.
Three of the 49 towns decided they had sufficient broadband Internet coverage not to bother. So far, 39 of the remaining 46 towns have voted to join WiredWest, all but one by unanimous vote. Six towns will have their ATMs during the rest of the month, and in one the select board will vote (almost certainly favorably.)
The town meeting votes weren’t necessary — the select boards could have decided on their own — but those of us involved in the recruitment strategy opted to go to town meetings for the opportunity that route provided to educate the public; to encourage select board members to take the project seriously; and because when the time comes for proposal (for grants) and prospectus (for investors) writing, it will be a powerful thing to say that citizens in 48 towns voted to form the enterprise, almost unanimously.
Draft organizational rules have been drawn up for discussion among town representatives (one per town) to begin in July. Look around the WiredWest site and you’ll see how much has been accomplished by teams of volunteers since February. Nobody has been paid a nickel to do anything yet. I’m blown away by how much energy these folks have put into the effort. My participation has been minimal; I helped draft the warrant article, supported broadband committee members in a few towns in getting it on their ATM warrants, and ran my editorial eyes over a few documents explaining what it’s all about. I tend to get involved where I have experience or expertise I don’t see among others, and to pull back when I no longer see anything I’m uniquely suited to do. So now I’ve pulled back and am standing on the sidelines, happily cheering as the parade goes by.
Which brings me back to Tiny Town and its municipal broadband system. Tiny Town’s real name is Warwick. Unlike the British, we pronounce both W’s – WAR-wick. It’s the northeasternmost town on the WiredWest map. The flat line across the top is the border we share with New Hampshire. I can walk there. I’ve kept it a secret because it’s too easy to find someone who lives in a town this size. It’s happened to me that someone who read one of my books showed up on my doorstep. I’m not a recluse like the late J.D. Salinger, one of my fiction gods, but I like to know when company’s coming.
The existence of WiredWest poses a question for Warwick Broadband. It could take two, three, or (more likely) four or five years before the fiber optic system reaches us. Hooking up to Warwick’s wireless broadband (faster than satellite, way faster than dialup, slower than DSL and cable broadband — which aren’t available here and will likely never be — but nowhere near the speed of fiber) costs $500 for equipment and installation and $50 a month. Installation of fiber optics will cost a fraction of the wireless price, and the monthly service will be about the same as now.
We have to wonder whether people currently on dialup will be willing to put out that kind of money for a few years’ service. With about 200 households remaining unserved here, that may not be too hard to find out. Whatever happens, it’s exciting to think that within a few years our town will have broadband as fast and reliable as anywhere on Earth, even in Boston.