Towns ask state to improve reliability of ‘middle mile’ internet network

Citing recent problems, leaders of more than a dozen publicly owned broadband systems are asking a state tech agency to make the “middle mile” network more reliable, preventing service gaps that leave people in rural areas without phones as well as internet access.

The state, in response, says towns are in a position to find solutions as well, by working with the network’s operator and their internet service provider.

“It’s going to take some money and some time, we acknowledge that,” Jim Drawe of Cummington, executive director of WiredWest, wrote in a letter this week to Carolyn Kirk, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. WiredWest represents towns that used state money, and some of their own, to build fiber networks.

In the letter, Drawe and 15 others call on the state to hire network engineers to examine why parts of the network have gone down — and to recommend steps to prevent them.

The goal is to make the 1,200-mile fiber-optic network known as Mass Broadband 123 less likely to fail, as it did for six towns March 29, when a tree fell on lines in the Franklin County town of Colrain. Customers had no internet access for 10 hours, the letter says.

And in New Ashford, in Berkshire County, customers lost internet access for 15 hours, according to Drawe, when a tree hit lines in Williamstown, caught on fire and melted through the fiber.

Kirk says Mass Tech already is working with the network’s operator, Local Linx, and with Westfield Gas & Electric, the utility that acts as the internet service provider for many rural towns that elected to build their own networks with substantial state money.

“Each local network currently has options to achieve a level of redundancy when there is an outage,” Kirk said in a statement, in response to questions from The Eagle about the issue.

“But those options come with clear costs, both financial and from a technical perspective,” she said. “Collectively we will work with the towns to identify and select the best solutions to help each municipal network reduce downtime resulting from future network outages.”

While weather mishaps can’t be prevented, the letter argues that the crucial middle mile service, which connects customers with global networks, can be made more resilient.

The towns say that Mass Tech should take greater responsibility for perceived shortcomings in how the network, dubbed MB123, copes with weather calamities.

“MB123 should have been designed to be fully redundant and resilient,” the letter says. “Unfortunately it is not. There are many single points of failure where a break can cause the loss of internet for a single town or for multiple towns. … MB123 has serious design deficiencies which leave people vulnerable to a loss of service.”

Without saying so explicitly, Kirk’s statement suggests that the cost of creating greater resilience in local service must fall, at least in part, to the town-owned networks.

“While acts of god cannot be completely avoided, the parties are working together with the goal of improved technical resilience against outages and minimized financial impact to municipally-owned networks,” Kirk’s statement said.

In Franklin and Hampshire counties, these local broadband officials affiliated with WiredWest signed on to the letter: David Dvore of Rowe; MaryEllen Kennedy of New Salem; and Sheila Litchfield of Heath. They were joined by these officials from non-WiredWest towns: Ray DiDonato of Wendell; David Kulp of Ashfield; Joe Kurland of the Colrain Select Board; and Gayle Huntress of Shutesbury.

In an interview, Drawe said the arrival of broadband has transformed communications in small towns. Now that it has, he said, people depend on it for tools beyond web browsers and telephone service. Some use medical devices hooked into the internet.

“If the internet is out for a period of time, those medical devices don’t communicate. Lives are at risk here,” he said.

One selling point of local broadband is that it has allowed people to drop their Verizon landlines and use Voice over Internet Protocol connections, even carrying over their old phone numbers. That means that when the network is down, people cannot call for police, fire or medical help, the letter notes.

Interruptions in service also hobble efforts to work and study from home. The letter argues that people deciding to locate their businesses to rural areas — it’s one of the promises of closing the digital divide — need to know they can count on service.

The letter to Kirk acknowledges that, in addition to improved electronics for the network, the MB123 system likely will need new fiber lines that will provide redundancy. For instance, Cummington, where Drawe lives, is served by an MB123 spur line from Plainfield. If a fiber line breaks on that spur, data cannot be rerouted, as is possible in other parts of the middle mile network.

Stringing more fiber, he said, will create resilience.

“So there are not … any points in the network where a break causes everything downstream to be dead,” Drawe said. “No single point of failure.”

The letter says work won’t come cheap and might depend on financial backing from the Legislature or federal government.

“The State owes it to the customers of Western Massachusetts who are currently paying to use the MB123 network,” the letter says. “Please start with the engineering study so we all know the scope of the fix that is required. Customers’ lives and livelihoods are dependent on a reliable network.”

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