Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rural co-op designed to bring internet to Western Mass. stalled by new Republican governor

A proposal to create a rural cooperative to increase internet access to under-served Western Massachusetts towns has been stalled by a new Republican administration, leaving the communities stuck in limbo, says a report from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The project, WiredWest, "has already secured deposits in the amount of $49 from more than 7,100 pre-subscribers, developed a financial model, and drafted an operating agreement." WiredWest would "connect community institutions such as libraries, schools, hospitals, and government buildings in 45 towns considered 'unserved' (because they lack any cable service), plus 79 other towns that had partial or full Internet access services." So far, only one of the 45 unserved towns has built such a network.

Susan Crawford, co-author of the report, writes in Backchannel, "The tale is disheartening. Dozens of small towns in Western Mass have been working for years towards forming a cooperative in an effort to take advantage of economies of scale — and to ensure their homes and businesses have future-proof, 21st-century fiber connections. But they’ve been met with indifference at the state level. The towns are willing to put up most of the cost but need the commonwealth’s help to get the fiber job done. The previous state administrators seemed to be on board with this. Now, the commonwealth, led by Gov. Charlie Baker seems to be looking for short-term, non-fiber solutions that don’t involve any form of cooperative municipal ownership." Baker took office in 2015.

"In 2009, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, boosted by some federal stimulus funding, began building a 1,200-mile 'middle-mile' fiber network," Crawford writes. "That network, called MassBroadband 123 and completed in 2014, was designed to connect libraries, schools, and government buildings to fiber in scores of Western Mass towns. But for the crucial 'last-mile' connectivity to homes and businesses, the towns were on their own." (Blue towns are access-starved. So are yellow towns, which have lined up to join the (now stalled) WiredWest cooperative. The red town, Leverett, managed to lay down a last-mile fiber network on its own.)
That led in 2010 to the creation of WiredWest, she writes. "The idea was that by acting as a cooperative, WiredWest towns would be able to buy equipment in bulk — and thus at lower costs — and ensure that the primary incentive of their Internet access provider would be ubiquitous high-quality service rather than cherry-picking customers and charging as much as the richest Massachusetts resident could pay."

After Barker took office in January 2015, and named a new head of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a state agency set up in 2008 as a pet project of then-Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, "communications between MBI and WiredWest became fraught: MBI issued statements signaling that single-town networks would be the way to go, and flatly said in December 2015 that 'the current draft WiredWest operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the commonwealth, the towns, or their residents,'" Crawford writes.

"Consultants hired by MBI said there were flaws in WiredWest’s business model; consultants hired by WiredWest said the model was conservative and appropriate," Crawford writes. "The key problem for MBI seemed to be the very idea of a 'cooperative' itself: MBI asserted to the towns that they would lose control of network infrastructure, while WiredWest pointed out that the cooperative would be 'nothing but the towns.' Chaos and confusion reigned. MBI had no other proposals on the table." (Read more)

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