The committee met in 23 regular sessions throughout the year for a cumulative 51.26 hours of meetings in conjunction with the select board, the acting Municipal Light Plant Board (MLPB), representing 385 human unit hours, committed to regularly scheduled meetings.
Everyone as individuals and groups worked tirelessly beyond the regular meetings to accomplish the necessary assignments to further the effort of bringing a modernized communication network to Wendell within task groups, phone conferencing, inter-town and state sponsored workshops, outreach networking, email responses, government/corporate liaising, not to mention the comprehensive note taking and archiving, and certain research by our volunteer clerk, Wanita Sears.
Suffice it to say the committee as a whole found its stride, and worked diligently to advise and support the objectives of the MLPB in working towards delivering the network services as voted by the people of Wendell.
There was a restructuring of the committee by the select board (SB), in July, officially joining the formerly separate Construction and Operations Committees into a single meeting unit, with members maintaining much of their specialty emphasis. It had become apparent that members had fairly well cross-pollinated their efforts, as logistics began to demand, and it was sensible to bring it all together under one banner, for the sake of efficiency and communication, as well as shared work load.
The joint meeting with the SB/MLPB (Municipal Light Plant Board) allowed business votes, and invoice approvals to move swiftly, and regular SB meetings to process MLP agenda items with the most informed position possible. The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development(EOHED) strongly recommended SB serve as MLPB during construction phase because of the legal implications of financial processing during the planning and build-out of the network. Formation of an appointed or elected MLPB will be set for 2020, after successful completion of the network.
The assignment of an MLP manager became required as Wired West (WW) voting membership rules dictated this as an essential condition. A job description for a MLP manager was developed, with consensus to keep attendance at a majority of Broadband (BB) meetings as a qualification, tasking an interim manager, through construction phase, with an operational manager's job description to be determined closer to project completion, anticipating certain tech background, invoice processing experience, and ability to be bonded, among other future considerations for the eventual permanent manager position.
Even though WW eventually grandfathered Robbie Heller (WW Rep.) as the voting authority for Wendell, it was apparent the time for managerial coordination had come. Ray DiDonato stepped up to volunteer his services MLP Manager, without compensation, through the construction phase, especially to provide consistency as our liaison to Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) Grant Manager, Bill Ennen, and Westfield Gas & Electric (WG&E), while continuing the multitude of tasks he had already been doing.
Brian Richards, consultant from Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E), recommended the Chapter 44 Section 53F1/2 Enterprise Fund as a preferred independent town Municipal Light Plant (MLP) accounting structure. Differences from Chapter 164 Section 47C (WW 's structure) are that the budget is presented to the Select Board 120 days before Annual Town Meeting (ATM). The Treasurer maintains the Enterprise Fund in a separate account. A budget shortfall can go to the tax rate with an ATM vote. Excess goes to a reserve fund for capital expenditures. ATM votes to expend excess. Loss goes to the following fiscal year's budget. A break even budget can be required.
Utilizing the Enterprise Fund rather than the General Fund would put any excess revenue in the Enterprise Fund's Reserve or Stabilization account for the EF's later use. Revenue deficits to costs are voted on in Town Meeting. General Fund utilization returns excess to Free Cash available to all municipal departments. MLP law operation uses a calendar rather than fiscal year and requires an annual audit. The recent Municipal Modernization Act allows operation for BB only.
After attending a Department of Local Services (DLS) Workshop, focused on the Enterprise Fund, Ray DiDonato was supportive of using an Enterprise Fund as our BB operations method. The handling of Federal Connect America Fund (CAFII) funding in the Enterprise Fund is being worked on by DLS. DLS will be providing support for the Enterprise Fund only. Support or discussion was not apparent in the workshop for any Chapter 164 MLP operations.
Ray DiDonato and Treasurer, Carolyn Manley met with the SB to work out details of short term borrowing. The SB approved of short term borrowing to cover make ready costs. The SB wants our long term borrowing done when we have our construction cost, with some short term later converted to long term. Carolyn sent short term borrowing information to the town financial adviser for review, explaining that the Town Meeting vote authorizing broadband borrowing of up to 1.9M authorizes this short term borrowing needed to insure cash flow and bill paying in a timely manner. No SB vote or posted meeting is actually necessary for loan signing. The balance can be rolled into the long term statehouse note program. Bill Ennen, EOHED Grant Manager guaranteed payment of make ready overrun costs from additional appropriated grant funding extended by the legislature.
EOHED's Bill Ennen recommended that towns go out to bid right after their design is completed. Four firms have been actively bidding on projects with favorable construction costs coming in. The utilities see a signed construction contract as a commitment, an impetus to mobilize to the town to expedite make ready work.
Significant time was spent in researching the most efficacious and economical strategies for bridging certain utility gaps that would be essential to effective service delivery, especially
deliberating underground versus aerial fiber deployment. The availability and conditions of additional grant funding was a critical aspect of final recommendations, but also very much the long term implications of maintenance/weather vulnerability. The (public way) Farley Road gap, running through WSF was eventually cut to half the original estimates with the preferred (but modified) underground deployment, and was eventually fully covered in the additional contingency fund grant through EOHED.
In other cases, design routing allowed a better flexibility for options than first anticipated, as in adding poles in the Old Stage Road gap costing less than the cost of replacing four poles in Shutesbury using our make ready State funds. Our contingency grant request was increased to fund Old Stage Road, as the better option. The added poles through a gap that is under 500 feet on Stage Road creates a completed fiber service delivery to the eastern Locke Hill Road residences receiving their utility feed through Shutesbury.
Ongoing cooperation with town of Shutesbury allowed for servicing a Wendell resident (edge case) through the neighboring system where there is no access to the anticipated Wendell fiber stretch. This was accomplished with no requirements of an IGA
Regular bi-monthly phone conferences were held with WG&E and a construction contact group as a conduit of direct procedural information to the committee, and to have questions answered promptly for meeting deliberations. The WG&E Working Group was established as a standing agenda item to keep the entire committee informed of developments. WG&E is our Operations Project Manager (OPM) through the construction period.
Westfield Gas & Electric (WGE) released the initial (fiber) strand map with the three Fiber Service Areas (FSA) that are essentially the three network neighborhoods with direct connections to the distribution hub (hut). Working group reviewing FSAs proposed additional strands Construction Committee recommends that the additional strands be reduced from 372 to 179. Further savings were identified with exchanging quad port multi service taps (MST), needed at the beginning of every driveway, with dual port MSTs that had become more recently available. The WG&E strand map went through multiple revision, reflecting the changes developed by the WBB working group, and further design efficiencies extracted by WG&E engineering, evolving into a very tight plan through this collaboration.
The initial strand map was heavily scrutinized for any inaccuracies and potential efficiency modifications that were forwarded to WG&E for optimizing design from the local perspective. Expediting final design, it was determined design changes by the working group that lower cost be acceptable without a meeting vote for direct submittal to WG&E. It is expected that we will go out to bid for construction in the spring after our design is finalized and our pole applications are back.
Private road and driveway pole costs were worked on by a task group. We have 77 homes designated a network extension, with higher load carrying fiber cable, because of larger utility pole distances . The State cannot allow grant fund use on private roads or driveways. Pending an affirmative answer from WG&E, network extensions were to be removed from construction cost, if a customer opted not to take service, and finalize design to put out to bid.
Writing a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Invitation to Bid (ITB) for Network Operator/Internet Service Provider (NO/ISP) vendors was considered, with either potentially difficult and time consuming. Resourcing for RFPs or ITBs from towns already in standalone operation was a pragmatically better option. WG&E (a.k.a. Whip City Fiber WCF) was the only interested vendor not heard or vetted by the Broadband (BB) Committee within a prior year dedicated to vendor proposals. WG&E, along with the viable vendors coming before BB in the past, have all been vetted by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) after responding to MBI's RFP to design and engineer.
Extensive attention to establishing the most realistic drop policy, included a separate task group to identify cost estimations for all potential subscribers, and then work within the total budget estimation to capture the most suitable subsidy level that could be provided to encourage a maximized subscriber level. WG&E set up the drop design overlayed on the town-wide fiber design through Precision Valley Communications (PVC). Lou Leeland created an online worksheet from the premise planning report listing drop cost, address, name, contact information and interest in broadband that members utilized and contributed to as one of the most central components of outreach and policy planning. This core database was critical in confirming the most desirable level of subsidy, while at the same time identifying certain potential subscriber situations that required further scrutiny, as well as contacting uncommitted future customers.
The drop policy work group was able to establish a construction subsidy covering $1200 per driveway as policy moving ahead, with a minimum 60% “take rate” (percentage of all possible subscribers). Residents with driveways that require a network extension will see cost and labor increase for an aerial drop, because with spans between two utility poles of more than 170 ft., fiber casing must be more load worthy than standard drops. Costs for delayed drop installations were requested from WG&E to inform anyone not signing up for broadband with the build about the potentially significant higher installation amount.
In debating whether to issue RFPs for NO/ISP, in comparison to other BB town's RFP and NO/ISP choices, it was verified that a RFP isn't needed when a town's MLP chooses NO/ISP services from another MLP. Instead of RFP bidding and a town contracting with the winning bidder, a straight forward Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) can be made between the two MLPs. There are multiple advantages to have both NO and ISP services provided by the same vendor, especially during a startup venture.
In response to our request for Network Operator (NO) and Internet Service Provider (ISP) information, WG&E has sent us their Intergovernmental Agreement(IGA) with the Town of Alford. We've received the Request for Information RFI from WG&E with NO, ISP and subscriber rates. Internet and phone cost is expected to only decrease in the future as more towns choose WG&E as their ISP.
Anticipated WG&E/WCF ISP workshops in Westfield, are in January, open to all committee members and MLPB to hear out what the organization has to offer as potential service provider.
The hub, or core structure of Wendell's municipal fiber network, is referred to as simply, “The Hut”, and this little building consumed numerous hours of deliberation and planning, but eventually, was destined to become a 2019 reality after certain excitement over a potential fall arrival. Nonetheless, after considering estimates for site built, and even previously used modular units, the committee was resolved to recommending acquiring a new modular unit through “bulk purchase”, in concert with other towns, from United Concrete, via WG&E, utilizing IGA sourcing. After a cost review of the accompanying backup generator, it was determined a separate purchase would be more economical, and likely customized more accurately to actual load needs.
Site prep work commenced after location was reviewed with the building inspector, fire chief, and highway department. The prescribed gravel base was laid, along with the underground access conduit and fiberglass pull box installation during the fall, in anticipation of a spring 2019 placement of the hut, by crane. Crane estimates were obtained and built into the total segment of projected costs. The electrical permit was pulled in advance, in order to proceed without delay upon placement.
After certain scrutiny of the original WG&E plan, it was determined that the redundant fiber routing that would require trenching to the west and south, around the town offices, was not likely to be of value that would justify costs and certain risks, versus a singular access trenched through the parking lot to the primary system utility pole. Highway has already given a cost estimate for the trench work, as required, including asphalt resurfacing.
Utility (22 original) pole applications, or “Pole Apps” were a continuous process of submittals based upon the WG&E design to both Northeast Utilities and Verizon, in order to determine the viability and status of individual utility poles identified for fiber deployment, determining any required replacement or modification to line positions on the poles (for eventual make ready). Ray DiDonato diligently generated necessary invoices for approval and processing by the MLPB, in order to keep the entire process in motion. All of the costs for these preliminaries are contained within the scope of the state grant managed by EOHED. Utility company progress is one of the greatest singular deterrents to the entire network build-out schedule, but part of the reality which all towns are experiencing in this process.
Shutesbury requested meeting to discuss Passive Optical Network (PON) split possibility. WG&E to add Shutesbury & NS into a tri-town GPON ring with non-managed splitters, interconnectivity, sharing, service continuity and options for future expansion.
Tom Powers of the Leverett MLP arranged a meeting with two or three people each from Wendell, New Salem and Shutesbury to hear a proposal from Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) for alternative back haul from Crown Castle and ring protection. All four towns agreed that we need back haul redundancy to MBI's 123 network. Initially, Leverett and Shutesbury will get Crown Castle back haul with ring protection. Wendell and New Salem could join in with their later constructions.
Wendell's extra design charges for the 10 fibers from Lake Wyola to our hut from Shutesbury will be paid by Shutesbury. Having the redundant ring, with Old Stage Road included now, will compensate against town wide service loss if either of the poles at the corners of Lockes Village Road or West Street fail, critically damaging fiber.
Nan Riebschlaeger worked an active Tri-town effort, coordinating activities and updates with both Shutesbury and New Salem for multiple sessions, sharing advice and feedback committees there were experiencing with various aspects of process that were very useful in evaluating certain aspects Wendell's own decision making.
WG&E placed a bid in the CAFII (Connect America Fund) reverse auction for their census blocks in a consortium of Municipal Light Plants (MLPs). WG&E asked that towns return a signed generic Intergovermental Grant Agreement (IGA) to create a consortium. WG&E is pledging to give 100% of auction awards won to the town.
Christine Heard docusigned an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) amendment for WG&E to bid on Wendell's census block in the CAFII auction. One commitment in the amendments is participation in an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) program offering lifeline and internet services to eligible low income residents.
Wendell's implied support in the final round of the CAFII auction is $81,902.76 making our 10 year support total $819,027.60. WG&E is awaiting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) verification of awards. In light of the recent requirements for our Connect America Fund (CAF II) funding, it was emphasized that what any CAF II town does effects every other town. Projected estimates were that funding would be available to us starting in 2023.
Robbie Heller and alternate Wired West (WW) representative, Alistair MacMartin continued to report to the committee with progress reports from regularly scheduled WW meetings. Summation of ongoing meetings was highlighted by the WG&E contract development, Town Contracts, including the Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU) operations contract between WW and participating towns.
New Salem MLP Manager and WW Executive Committee member indicated that WW will pay any Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) due to member towns. Selectboard appointed member town Municipal Light Plant (MLP) Managers need to also be the town's WW Representative.
WW's meeting bylaws were approved. The agreement with towns was also ratified. Policy will be made for the low income subsidy. Present prices are $59/mo. for 25 mbps and $75/mo.for1G without phone for both levels.
In order for Robbie Heller to continue to vote for Wendell at WW, Robbie needed to be codified as Wendell's WW representative by the MLP manager. WW asked that their contract with towns be signed in time to campaign for subscribers. No decision had been reached determining any further commitment to WW regarding NO/ISP.
Final service goals moved throughout the year, from July, to September 2019, and then realistically, early 2020, as the reality of the make-ready schedule by the utilities became more and more evident.
WBBC requires solid numbers for our take rate by cleaning up the yes, no and undecided responses from our last survey. We'll structure our asking when we canvas for accuracy and consistency. A pre-subscription fee of $100 is being considered. Our Treasurer, Carolyn Manley can create an escrow account for fees. WG&E as Internet Service Provider (ISP) assists significantly with marketing for individual towns.
Lou Leelyn's BB update the Town newsletter was submitted, with Kai posting a short summary of our newsletter update to the town listserve to mobilize interested subscribers. Our FAQ, of coordinated talking points for dialogue with potential subscribers, will also be posted on the WBB website for residents to review. In an effort to avoid misinformation being given in answer to potential BB subscriber's questions by anyone other than BB members, delegated question response was established between BB members, to be reassigned on a regular basis. Ray DiDonato, as manager, assumed amendment details for the Wired Wendell webpage.
A $100 (Whip City Fiber – WG&E) pre-subscription fee to be held in a Treasurer created escrow account is being considered. Confusion with the $49 pre-subscription fee that some residents have given to WW was considered a potential obstacle to further subscription deposits. Business planning for operations will be addressed in the near future.
Drops would begin 30-45 days from the subscriber's drop contract. Any amount a subscriber owes over the $1200 drop policy coverage would be due from the subscriber at that point. 90 days before drop installation Cirtex will collect the $1200. The entire subscriber's payment for WCF issued bills will be deposited into a stripe account with the Town Treasurer. WG&E/WCF will bill us monthly for their internet, phone, and network operations fees portion of payments.
WCF (Whip City Fiber – WG&E) will create a Wendell website where subscribers can submit an application of interest. Soup to nuts streaming classes and a few marketing days can be scheduled.
John Leary submitted WCF's 2019 booklets of streaming services available and accessible from a WCF ISP connection, with a smart TV or streaming device and a separate subscription to the streaming services, such as Hulu or Netflix. Some streaming services offer free trials. Comcast currently charges $200/mo. for internet and TV. Streaming devices can be purchased from WCF.
For subscribers needing a business only phone WCF will subcontract from TPX. Adding a second VOIP phone number for a subscriber's needs is no problem. WCF has no contracts with subscribers. WCF will buy out any contract that a subscriber has with their present satellite provider. WCF does not include battery supply outage backups (UPS) with the service components that they are responsible to replace. Subscribers can be directed to sources for UPS for direct purchase, which is particularly advisable for those relying on VOIP phones, exclusively.
Using Shutesbury's sustainability sheet from their RFP process, it was found that Wendell's monthly subscriber fee is in the $99 range with a 60% take rate. Annual maintenance is calculated at $1700/per town mile including driveways. Following deliberations it was moved that the proposed price for internet be $99/mo., with internet phone an additional $25/mo. and standalone phone only be $70/mo., (to be further researched before confirmation).
The task is well in hand, and the Wendell Broadband Committee working in concert with the MLPB is determined to see the job through in 2019, continuing with the pace and commitment
that has brought us so far along in the effort to launch a 21st century municipally operated communication network.