Editor’s Corner—Mount Washington, Massachusetts, municipal network shows can-do approach to community broadband

Rural broadband
Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

As the third smallest town in Massachusetts, Mount Washington is not an obvious FTTH buildout target.

Today, Mount Washington has a grand total of about 146 residents, a number of whom only spend up to two weeks of the year in the town as a vacation spot.

But with few broadband options other than Verizon, the local incumbent telco, or expensive satellite service, the town sought a partner to construct a municipally-owned FTTH network.

Upon completion, the network will outfit each Mount Washington household with dedicated fiber strands originating from MassBroadband’s middle-mile backbone termination point at town hall. The town hall will actually house the optical line terminal (OLT) that will deliver signals to the home. Those who choose to subscribe to internet and telephone services will pay a monthly fee to a third-party service provider.

Working in partnership with White Mountain Cable (a subsidiary of Dycom) and eX2 Technology, Mount Washington expects construction of its active Ethernet network to be completed in about nine months.

Although most of Mount Washington’s residents consist of vacationers getting away from the hustle and bustle of city life, they expect a similar broadband experience.

“There’s some people that would come in there in the past to get away, but more and more people have determined that broadband is a way to get news and keep socially interactive,” said Joel Mulder, VP of sales for eX2Technology, in an interview with FierceTelecom. “Even those houses that did not have any broadband connection are being connected because the people that come up there have kids and they’re used to being on their an iPhone and having some kind of connectivity.”

Surpassing broadband limits

Being a rural community where internet service is generally unavailable and cell service is sporadic, the town is among the nation’s rising municipalities and rural cooperatives that are equipping their community with desired broadband service connections.

Today, internet options in Mount Washington are limited to costly satellite services, which are not only expensive but also have set limits. Similar to wireless plans, users that violate the limits have to pay hefty overage fees.

Gail Garrett, selectboard member for Mount Washington, has seen these issues first hand as a full-time community resident.

“Right now we only have satellite or a radio frequency,” Garrett said. “At my house, I have the best internet on the mountain via a radio frequency, but once the wind starts blowing it’s a little iffy.”

Upon completing the network, Mount Washington will have access to 500 Mbps for $120 a month running over an Active Ethernet network. While the town could have gone for 1 Gbps, Garrett said the 500 Mbps was a less expensive option.

“It will cost us less money monthly to tap into 500 Mbps versus 1 Gbps so we decided to go with 500 Mbps,” Garrett said.

Now that it has announced the network build, house sales in the town are accelerating.

“Maybe it’s a fluke, but we just had a whole slew of house sales recently,” Garrett said. "It was an extraordinary number we have not had in a long time so we’re hoping it will bring some people to our community.”

Overcoming make-ready

While Mount Washington is a small rural town, it is not immune to the build out challenges, particularly those related to the make-ready process to attach fiber to existing utility poles.

Since Verizon and National Grid own the local poles in Mount Washington, it won’t be until May that the make-ready work will be done.

Mulder said that make-ready is the most challenging issue.

“One of the banes of any outside plant build is make-ready and it’s a slow and tedious process and you go through because that’s the way it is right now,” Mulder said. “Some of the poles will be done in April and the latest will be in May to be ready for us to put fiber on the poles.”  

Garrett agreed and added that while it’s a key issue it’s one they just have to work through.

“The real problem is there are a lot of unnecessary steps,” Garrett said. “Verizon told us it would be completed in mid-May.”

Mount Washington’s experience is hardly isolated. Google Fiber, for one, has been battling AT&T and Comcast to develop what it calls a “one-touch make-ready” process.

Competitive telecom group Incompas recently called on the FCC to incorporate the one-touch make-ready process into its pole attachment reform process.

Mulder admitted that while make-ready is daunting, it’s best to follow the process.

“You can’t rush the process right now,” Mulder said. “If you rush the process and try to circumvent you’re just asking for trouble.”

Putting aside the inherent challenges, Mount Washington’s network plans show how a can-do attitude can produce benefits for a small community.

It’s likely that as other communities in Massachusetts and other parts of the country consider a municipal broadband build, they will look at Mount Washington as a case study to follow. --Sean