Progress on the Wendell Broadband project continues to pick up speed as we move forward into check writing and preliminary construction aspects. Since our Spring update, we have gained much more information surrounding financial projections, passed several important milestones for design and make-ready, and we remain cautiously optimistic of a very helpful source of funding. A number of details are nearly finalized and discussions surrounding construction procurement have begun. Current projections still show the network going live around September 2019.
Design and Make Ready
Our partner WG&E (Westfield Gas and Electric) has provided a complete network design and we have been combing through locating any final amendments and cost savings. We continue to discuss the town’s rare edge cases which will need to be serviced by neighboring towns and have discussed potential IGA agreements with those towns.
ï¿½ We have completed our make-ready applications with Verizon and National Grid and their teams have been working for the past month to identify the costs associated with making sure each pole has sufficient space for the network’s required additional cables. We do not have a total cost for make ready yet as the applications trickle in one by one. We have received a few invoices so far which reflect what the utilities are going to charge us to prepare the poles for construction and are paying them using our state grant money within the 45 day deadline (with the first round of invoices being due on 11/10). Once the invoices are paid, the utilities begin their work to ready the poles. Make ready work is likely to continue into 2019.
We have recently refined our plans for purchasing and installing the Hut. This 9’x16’ concrete structure, which will be located behind the town offices, will be the central hub and heart of the network and will contain the mainframe of electronics needed to run the entire system. WG&E has procured and sealed a discounted price on a pre-fabricated structure manufactured by United Concrete. We are focused on a November installation as we will need to dig some trenches and lay a base before winter sets in.
Costs and Funding
One of the most challenging aspects for the committee has been determining exactly how much this project is going to cost - both in terms of capital construction and monthly subscriber fee. We have spent many seasons without having a clear idea of total cost and finally that is shifting. After receiving an initial estimate and with the help of some preliminary financial decisions regarding procurement, drop policy, and construction, we are already realizing potential savings of over $300,000 which brings our current total project cost estimate to less than $1.6 million. We will continue to make decisions that help us decrease that cost as much as possible while pursuing and monitoring MA House Bill 4015, and CAFII funding (two promising and very helpful funding opportunities).
Additionally, our make ready costs could come in much lower than anticipated, realizing even more savings. The committee continues to work with the WG&E design team to minimize construction costs where possible and WG&E analyzes each make ready conclusion to see if there are any savings prior to our being billed. Any savings in this make ready process will directly reduce the debt burden for the town. A sub group of the committee participates in a bi-weekly conference call with WG&E staff to provide input on this process. Again, Wendell’s contribution to the project will only begin once our state funding has been exhausted so we continue to work toward the most affordable solutions.
Another highly variable cost of construction is associated with the service drops which run from the public roads to individual houses. We have received a complete report outlining the exact cost of running the fiber service drops to each house in town. We are busy analyzing the large data set to determine how much that cost will be passed on to the individual subscriber and how much Wendell will be able to pay using the general construction fund. Current proposals show that Wendell may be able to cover 85% of the town’s drop costs meaning that Wendell could afford to pay for fiber leading directly up to the homes of 85% of town. The remaining 15% includes properties with extremely long driveways, residences located within difficult terrain, empty unbuilt lots, homes that are not equipped for fiber (off the grid) and edge cases as discussed above. We remain hopeful we will find a workable and affordable solution to assist the absolute majority of townfolk with this cost to bring the fiber from the street to the home.
Again, we cannot stress enough that in any case, the cost of connecting to the network will rise significantly (potentially by thousands of dollars) if a resident does not take service during the 2019 construction period when trucks and crews are already mobilized in town.
Monthly Service Cost
We understand that residents are anxious to hear exactly how much internet service will cost monthly as well as what their tax burden will be. Now that we have received some hard numbers we are able to estimate that the monthly subscriber fee for service will be right around $99 as long as enough residents sign up. A further factor in determining the rate is how much, if any, of debt service (construction) costs are added to monthly subscriber fees. Adding a debt service charge will reduce the potential property tax increase by a corresponding amount, addressing concerns of non-subscribers. Finally, if we are successful at securing CAF-II funds, these may be used to offset property tax increases, subscriber fees or both.
Wired West Cooperative or Stand Alone Model
Continuing discussions evolve around our need to make a choice about an ISP (internet service provider) and network operator. Wendell’s MLP signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with Wired West expressing our intention to work toward an agreement with them to operate and maintain our network once it has been built. While we are keeping our foot in the door with Wired West, there have been significant changes within the structure and number of towns (and their commitment) that has forced us to examine, in theory, a plan B of a stand alone model. We are still in a window where we do not have to make a final decision and will continue to evaluate all options.
A promising development is the cooperation Wendell is seeing with neighboring towns including Leverett, New Salem, and Shutesbury. There have been numerous meetings with representatives from each town to discuss viability, cooperation and sharing of resources, increasing fiber rings for network redundancy, and the idea of forming our own tri- or quad- town regional network. These discussions increase the ability for all our towns to take a stand-alone position with the support of our region.
Future Broadband Forums
Wendell residents are encouraged to attend our meetings, generally held on Tuesday evenings at the town office building (dates and time are posted to the right on the website's calendar as well as on the town listserv.) However, we understand that these meetings may not work for all residents. The committee is still committed to scheduling an informational forum to share information and recommendations around total construction costs, operator/ISP choice and monthly subscriber fee as soon as that information becomes available.
Questions and comments for the committee can be sent to: