Town-owned wireless effort quashed, Royalston board goes with Charter

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 4/25/2021 4:09:22 PM
Modified: 4/25/2021 4:09:21 PM

ROYALSTON — After 10 years of meetings, negotiations, research and strategizing, the effort to bring wireless broadband service to residents of Royalston has unceremoniously come to an end. At a recent meeting, the town’s Selectboard voted to disband the Broadband Committee and, instead of constructing a town-owned wireless system, agreed to have Charter/Spectrum construct a fiber optic broadband network which, according to Charter, will serve 96 percent of Royalston households.

The board’s decision came just one day after Broadband Committee member Jon Hardie, who had served as project manager, said wording of a single paragraph needed to be finalized in the proposed contract with BLiNQ Networks, the company that was supposed to construct the wireless system.

In the meantime, town officials had been notified by the state Department of Housing and Community Development that Charter had won a federal bid to wire communities throughout the country that are currently without broadband service. While an initial proposal from Charter indicated the town would have to fund nearly $800,000 of a $1.9 million project, the town was now being told that Charter could undertake the project at no cost to Royalston.

“The purpose of the Selectboard meeting was for us to get updates on both projects,” said D’Amico, “and then decide: what are we going to do? Are we going to continue with the wireless project or are we going to abandon that, return the money to the state, and enter into this agreement — with MBI’s (Massachusetts Broadband Institute) assistance with Charter — to wire the town? And, in the end, we voted unanimously to go with Charter and disband the Broadband Committee.”

According to D’Amico, the town will now have to return a $1.125 million grant that had been awarded to it by the state to pursue construction of a wireless system.

“My understanding,” she said, “is that that money is still ours, in a sense. They will use that to help move this new project along. The state is very invested in getting Royalston connected and has been watching us very closely over the past few years, waiting for our project to move forward and it really has not. It’s stalled.”

D’Amico said the original vision of establishing a town-owned wireless system, where money was paid to the town instead of a large corporation, was “noble.”

“However, the reality of getting a wireless system in our area up and running, finding a company that would even bid on doing it — I mean, it’s been daunting. (Broadband Committee Chair) Andy West said if we decided to go forward with the wireless project, that it should not go forward with a volunteer committee, but we would need to hire a professional project manager.”

Jon Hardie, the man who had served as project manager on the wireless project on behalf of the town, believes the Selectboard has made a big mistake.

“In the last three or four years,” he said, “Charter has paid over $200 million in fines for lying to municipalities, for lying to users.”

Hardie predicts residents will end up paying burdensome subscription fees due to the cost of providing fiber optic service to a rural community like Royalston.

“The threshold for a break-even (fiber optic) broadband network is 12 users per mile,” he said. “In Royalston, we have 7½ users per mile. How do you expect Charter to make up for the difference? They have to charge more to their subscribers.

“If it was worthwhile for all of these vendors to install fiber, without any incentives, we’d have fiber today.”

Hardie said the numbers just don’t add up.

“I’m asking, is it economically viable (for Charter) to build a fiber network?” he said. “Probably not. If it isn’t, how do you make that work? The only way you make it work is by doing what you’ve proven you do all across the country, which is lie to the customers, you lie to the state, you lie to the municipality. And then, in the contract, you prevent people from suing.”

Hardie also said the Selectboard may have violated the Open Meeting Law by failing to list the board’s vote on the broadband issue on the agenda that had been posted for its meeting.

D’Amico, however, doesn’t see a problem.

“The purpose of this meeting,” she said, “was for the board to hear both paths forward. We were up against a time constraint due to pressure from the state to make a decision one way or the other.

“I think we acted in good faith as leaders of the town on behalf of our residents, who were ready for a change of course. If we had adjourned that meeting without making a decision, the public would have been furious, and rightly so. The time to act has long passed and this was an opportunity we would have been foolish to pass up.”

Asked he planned to file an Open Meeting Law complaint with the state, Hardie replied, “That’s an interesting question.

“I told the folks that, in good conscience, I could not support the consideration of Charter because of their history of lying. So, I resigned my position as project lead. I can’t be a part of a process which does not support legitimate open discussion of the issues, of the risks. That’s what the Broadband Committee was for.”

“The situation is emotional for Jon,” said D’Amico, “and I understand and respect that. He has put thousands of hours into the wireless project, and it was a difficult decision to shut that all down. The entire broadband committee was acknowledged at that public meeting and those present gave the committee a standing ovation to show their appreciation. Jon was not present.

“The Selectboard has to make tough decisions at times, decisions that may not make everyone happy. This was one of those times. However, I am confident that this decision was truly in the best interest of our residents. For that reason, I have no regrets about any aspect of this.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


E-Edition & Local Ads


Weather


athol forecast

Social Media




Athol Daily News

14 Hope Street,
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Telephone: (413) 772-0261

 

Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.