Thursday, May 14, 2015

5.14.15 THE WILD WIRED WEST


This article originally appeared in the 5.14.15 issue of Metroland.

Wonders never cease.  It looks like my mountain house in this tiny Berkshire mountain town is gonna get some serious broadband internet.  We’re talking fiber, and we’re talking something like $50 a month.

            I live in a broadband-free town.  I don’t think any cable providers serve the town, but some folks on the main roads get Verizon DSL.  Which sucks as far as serious internet goes.  And since Verizon is under no obligation to hook up everybody in town (like they are for landline telephone), those of us who live off the beaten path have been stuck with satellite internet.  Which totally sucks as far as serious broadband goes.  First you need to put up a dish to talk to the satellite – when I moved into my house I discovered I had to pay $5000 to cut down the three huge trees that were blocking my signal.  Then I got this slow satellite pretend broadband.  They say “lightening-fast speeds up to 15 bps” but it’s more like 2-3 bps.  And it’s metered, like cellphone data, so when I run out of my monthly allotment, I have to buy more.  And it’s expensive.  No Netflix for me! No Apple TV!  No Hulu!

            For awhile, I had something called Wild Blue internet.  It would shut down about once a week, sending me to customer service hell to find out what was wrong and when I might get my internet back.  Then last year my modem crapped out.  Wild Blue couldn’t manage to get someone to bring me a new one, and they couldn’t just send me one, that’s too simple!  So after being dark for three weeks I canceled my service and had the only other provider, Hughesnet, come out and put another dish up, and now I’m back in business.  Slow, annoying, expensive business.  And when you cancel satellite service, they don’t come take the dish down.  It costs too much and even a dead dish is free advertising for the company that couldn’t cut it.  So one day soon I’ll go out with a hacksaw and cut the damn thing down myself.

            A couple of years ago I heard that the state was putting fiber optic cables, supposedly just about the fastest, highest capacity broadband portals there are, along some main roads in rural Western Mass.  Like through my town.  But it didn’t matter, they weren’t hooking up houses, and they sure weren’t going up the side roads.  Then there was the announcement of something called Wired West, a not-for-profit looking to do some kind of “public-private partnership” was trying to figure out a way to provide “last mile” wiring so everybody had broadband. 

            I didn’t pay much attention, really.  I was PO’d that the phone and cable companies weren’t doing it.  This warm-fuzzy cooperative rah rah “initiative” seemed like so much hopeless drivel.

            Boy oh boy was I wrong.  Wired West figured out that under state law, if a town wanted to, it could form a “municipal light plant” to provide utility services to its citizens.  The town could then use its low-cost municipal borrowing power to get the money to build out the broadband infrastructure.  And if enough towns joined together on this, the thing would pretty much pay for itself from subscriber fees.  There were conditions: 60% of the households in each town needed to sign up and send in a $50 deposit, and the bond issue needed to be approved by a 2/3 vote at a town meeting.   For a while I was thinking “good luck with that.”

            Last Friday night we had our big town meeting to vote on this.  The fire hall was packed, SRO, and there were a lot of faces some of my local friends didn’t recognize.  There was energy in the room.  After a pretty detailed presentation from Wired West, the matter was put up for discussion. 

            Now, when I moved to Massachusetts from New York in the early 2000’s I discovered something about the ol’ Commonwealth:  they really like their participatory democracy over here.  All sorts of things that in New York would get decided by elected bodies or election day ballots get elected over here in public meetings.  After a “public discussion.”  It’s a grand thing in principal; in practice maybe not so much. Often times the attendance at the town meetings are less than 10% of the enrolled voters.  That certainly wasn’t the case Friday.  Then there’s the “public discussion” part.  Oh dear.  Bloviators.  There’s a few in every crowd, and this being a rather moneyed Noo Yawkah retirement town, there’s a few more than a few.  The questions came and came, not so much in search of answers but to demonstrate one’s incisive brilliance to friends and neighbors.  What if this? What if that?  Are you aware that yadda yadda yadda?  I almost yelled “What if God and Superman had a fight, you self-important twits?” but I refrained.

            After a couple hours it passed, nearly unanimously, as it has in a dozen other little towns and as it will in a couple dozen more.  And in a couple of years, we’ll have fabulous internet, TV and telephone, and we’ll own the company that’s providing it.  And you just can’t beat that, babe.


Paul Rapp is an IP attorney who tends to get impatient with the democratic process, especially after a few cocktails.

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