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Colrain eyes broadband options Tuesday

Monday, May 4, 2015
DIANE BRONCACCIO

COLRAIN — Although Colrain is one of WiredWest’s “unserved towns” seeking high-speed Internet, Selectmen this week heard how a private Internet Service Provider — Crocker Communications Inc. — could help the town achieve its goal of a last-mile Broadband network.

Crocker is now providing Internet service for Leverett’s town-owned broadband network, which is expected to be completed by the end of June. Leverett already has at least 70 percent of all its households signed up for service, and Bill Stathis, Crocker’s director of sales, believes about 85 percent of Leverett’s households will be online after the town-owned, $3.6 million build-out is complete.

Leverett raised its tax rate to pay for the build-out, but Colrain, with a similar-size population, has 86 road miles to Leverett’s 43. Also, Colrain’s estimated build-out cost is about $2.4 million, not counting grant money from the state’s $40 million Internet Technology bond bill.

Stathis said the town’s build-out options are: to work with the 32-town WiredWest Cooperative; form a town/private industry partnership; follow Leverett’s single-town model, using Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) resources for the design and build-out; or form a multi-town partnership that uses MBI technical director David Charbonneau, the overseer of the MassBroadband123 middle-mile network.

“I think the last two are the best options for any towns with concerns about WiredWest,” he said. He said those options enable the towns to outright own their own infrastructure. If a few towns create a multi-town partnership, he said they could share the same employees, and save money. “Leverett has a 20-hour per week employee doing the paperwork,” Stathis said. “You could probably have a person doing that for four or five towns instead of one.” He said a group of towns could realize a better economy of scale, for instance, by sharing insurance or using bucket-truck operators for maintenance or repairs.

Stathis said Crocker is a 50-year-old, three-generation family-owned business that began by providing a telephone answering service in 1956, primarily for public safety services. It has been an ISP provider for 20 years and has offered telephone service for 10 years. Crocker now provides unlimited Internet access at a 1-gigabit per second. He said Crocker was “an integral partner in Leverett’s success story.”

“We give Leverett their share (of user fees) and Leverett pays the bills,” he explained. “We could do that here, or collect the money and pay the providers. In Leverett, we engage local handymen and electricians.”

Stathis said going alone, or with a smaller group of towns and an ISP provider could mean a faster build-out process, because “the cooperative (WiredWest) has got to herd 16 to 25 towns into a single agreement that everyone can sign. ... MBI is cautioning towns to make sure you understand what you’re doing when you choose your collaborative.”

Stathis said WiredWest has been brilliant in creating a strategy for the under-served towns but will now have to reinvent itself if it is to run the last-mile network. “An existing ISP already has all the things that a new company has to build from the ground up,” he said. He talked about pole-licensing and the many data points that have to be collected for every pole. He estimated it will take about three to six months to collect all that data, and another six to nine months to get utility approval for adding fiber optic cable.

He advised the board to meet with several ISP providers before deciding on a plan. “There’s plenty of time to sort out your ISP options,” he said.

At Tuesday’s annual town meeting, residents will be asked whether they will exempt the $2.4 million needed for the broadband build-out from the town’s 2 1/ 2 percent tax levy limit. Selectmen said this week they are not asking the town for the money and would come back for a town meeting vote with a financial plan later.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277