Cut those low-hanging branches. Find the path your electrical service takes to reach your house. That’s what the Leverett broadband committee is telling its residents now that construction is about to begin on the town’s broadband network.
“We expect that within a matter of days our contractor will be starting work,” said Peter D’Errico, a retired UMass legal studies professor who lives in Leverett and is a member of the town’s cable committee.
D’Errico explained that the town’s telephone and electrical providers, Verizon and Western Mass. Electric, have been readying the utility poles in town to be fitted with fiber optic cables in preparation for the construction that will be carried out by the project contractor, Millennium Communications of New Jersey.
Millennium’s track record includes a network called the Rosenet Wide Area Network that connects AT&T Research, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison Township administrative buildings and the schools in Madison, N.J., and many other projects, among them a surveillance network for the Newark Housing Authority.
In Leverett, an aspect of the broadband project that will not be carried out by Millennium Communications is the building of two structures to house the apparatus for the network.
“We’re in the design and site preparation phase for the two small buildings that will hold the network equipment,” d’Errico said. “We have to put that out for bid. At one site there has to be some Conservation Commission oversight because it’s near a wetland, but that will be fairly simple, and the construction will shortly be put out for bid.”
Leverett’s experience is a textbook case for advocates of municipal broadband. The town has a very small population—about 2,000—and an uneven terrain with hills and ravines, factors that have made commercial providers reluctant to build an up-to-date system there.
As recently as 2007, Leverett was so underserved by broadband and even cell phone connectivity that people were reluctant to rent living space there, and property values were suffering. Police making traffic stops couldn’t even access state records such as drivers’ licenses. In 2008, Verizon offered the village DSL access, but it worked poorly and didn’t reach every home in town.
Meanwhile the state’s MassBroadband 123 program, which involves 123 communities in western and north central Massachusetts, created a fiber optic network that brought access much nearer Leverett—near enough that all the town needed was so-called “last-mile” service.
In 2011 the town got a $40,000 state grant to study the creation of a municipal broadband network. The Select Board appointed a Broadband Committee and once the two bodies were armed with sufficient planning information, they so eloquently made their case that an up-to-date local broadband network was necessary and feasible that 90 percent of town residents voted for an increase in property taxes to bond for $3.6 million for the work.
The system, which will offer public wi-fi as well as in-home broadband, is expected to be in operation by the end of this year.
Leverett’s action is notable not only because its residents decided to move out on their own and not wait any longer for service from a broadband provider, but because the town’s move to create its own “Leverettnet” is part of a movement that’s becoming increasingly controversial.
About 400 communities in the U.S. have or are building their own broadband networks, but opposition is strong and growing. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Koch-fueled lobbying group, has written model legislation to combat the spread of municipal networks on the grounds that when they are funded wholly or partly by tax money, they create unfair competition for private enterprise.
Twenty states have laws that either prohibit or seriously discourage the building of municipal broadband networks (Massachusetts has no such law). Some of them impose profitability requirements that are impossible for municipal systems to meet; some allow local networks only under terms so restrictive that they are, in effect, prohibited.
In Kansas, the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association, consisting of Cox Communications, Eagle Communications, Time Warner Cable and Comcast, have lobbied and even written legislation to make it illegal for a municipality to establish a broadband network except in “unserved” areas; the legislation as first presented defined “unserved” so restrictively that it even excluded dish service, a definition opponents said made it impossible to designate any area of the state as unserved.
The Federal Communications Commission, however, has expressed support for communities that move to build their own broadband systems if they have been unable to get commercial broadband companies to provide them with effective service. That position has brought the FCC under fire from the broadband industry, but so far FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s remarks on the subject have been consistent with those of the agency’s previous chairman, Julius Genachowski. “If a community can’t gain access to broadband services that meet its needs,” Genachowski wrote last year, “then it should be able to serve its own residents directly. Proposals that would tie the hands of innovative communities that want to build their own high-speed networks will slow progress to our nation’s broadband goals and will hurt economic development and job creation in those areas.”•