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Northwest Connect Hopes to Build Regional Fiber-Optic Network by 2021

Dropped cell phone calls and slow downloads would be distant memories


By Ruth Melville

If the efforts of a local advocacy group called Northwest Connect are successful, we may see a fiber-optic network installed in the Northwest Corner by 2021.

Northwest Connect was formed by a group of citizens and elected officials, most notably former state representative Roberta Willis, in fall of 2015 with the goal of bringing a 21st-century communications infrastructure to 25 towns in our region. By banding together, the towns, which comprise approximately 65,000 households, will create a critical mass for the economic viability of the project.

What makes fiber-optic broadband so desirable? In a word: speed. A fiber-optic cable, which is made up strands of optically pure glass, each strand the size of a human hair, is able to transmit large amounts of data very, very fast. According to Northwest Connect, fiber-optic broadband is the gold standard in modern electronic communication, and installing a network in our area would bring much-needed economic vitality.

In October, Felicia Jones, the project coordinator for Northwest Connect, gave a presentation to the Northwest Council of Governments (NHCOG) in which she described the progress that has been made so far. She has spent the last few months visiting the target towns, and not surprisingly, she found widespread support for improved cellphone coverage and faster Internet access. Young people who have grown up with a cell phone in their hand want Wi-Fi everywhere and all the time, and businesses have come to rely on broadband and mobile data.

But there are many other advantages to a state-of the-art communications system—in the area of public safety for one: motorists wouldn’t have to fear breaking down in a cell phone dead zone; emergency service personnel in an ambulance could send data ahead to the hospital emergency room. And in the not-so-distant future the network would enable the growth of telemedicine: elderly or chronically ill patients could be monitored at home, instead of having to visit the doctor. The tourism industry would also benefit if tourists could consult Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Google maps on the road, or reliably access the Internet in their hotel rooms.

Unfortunately, traditional carriers have been reluctant to bring costly services to a low-density area like the Northwest Corner, forcing small towns and rural areas to investigate ways of improving connectivity on their own.

A few years ago, Norfolk resident Kim Maxwell, who has a background in cutting-edge telecommunication technology, urged town government and the Economic Development Commission to support building a fiber-optic network for Norfolk, which he felt would give the town a competitive edge over neighboring areas in attracting low-impact businesses and new residents, particularly younger people working in tech-related fields. Although there was interest in his idea, the cost of the project seemed too daunting for such a small town to take on. Maxwell is now president of the board of directors of Northwest Connect and the organization’s technical adviser.

A major advantage of Northwest Connect’s approach is that by bringing the 25 towns together, the cost of creating the network would be shared. Jones says, “We have an opportunity to build this for far less than it would take any town to do individually.”

So how would this new regionwide network be paid for? Northwest Connect is proposing a public/private partnership, and will soon be sending out requests for information (RFIs) to local carriers. The plan is to try to do this without state funds.

Towns will have to put up money at the beginning, but the expectation is that their original investment will be repaid, and the money will continue to come back to the towns over time. Additional benefits will come from an increased tax base and construction and maintenance jobs.

The system will consist of a hub, with stations in each of the towns. The proposal calls for bringing fiber to every home and business in the 25 towns. As part of the system, small cell servers on telephone poles will fortify the mobile network and fill in dead zones.

Individual residents could choose to stay with their current service or switch to the new system. Although there are no numbers available yet, Northwest Connect estimates that the regionally co-owned company will reduce service costs by $15 to $20 per month.

In her presentation to NHCOG, Jones outlined a timeline for the project’s next steps. In the immediate future, Northwest Connect hopes to have its website up and running quickly. In the next three months, the corporation will be sending out the RFIs, and on May 18 of next year, it will hold a regional conference. Meanwhile, Jones will continue to engage with the communities, keeping them informed, encouraging feedback, and eventually holding town meetings. The projected completion date for the fiber-optic network is 2021.

Jones, who is herself a resident of Falls Village, says that she is “excited about the possibilities this project can bring to our region.” While world-class Internet and mobile data would be great in themselves, she stresses that it is “the economic opportunities that would result from this project, immediately and in the future, that are truly inspiring.”

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