Roberta Willis served us for sixteen years as a representative to the state assembly. She had grown weary of pleading with Comcast to provide broadband access to her many unserved constituents and getting nowhere. Everyone should have broadband access.
She also sensed that rapid growth in data rates, from dial-up modems 20 years ago to 50 mbps cable connections now, would not stop. Frontier and CATV have old networks nearing the end of their useful lives. The future needs something new. “We got touchtone dialing last,” she said to herself: “we need the future soon, indeed, first for a change.” Her answer was a fiber optic network at gigabit rates sooner rather than later.
“If we had a gigabit network first, connecting everyone, we could really go after the sagging population of young people in our region with high-tech jobs. We could dissipate the digital divide in education. We could enable future telemedicine for our aging population, perhaps save rural medicine.” She could see a turn in our quality of life from a drift downward to a bright, well-lit future.
These few simple words—everyone, the future first, jobs, life—moved her to strike the match that lit the initiative we now call Northwest Connect.
Roberta pulled a board together that now comprises seven elected or appointed officials and a strong technology contingent. (See board list here.) We have close relations with the Northwest Hills Council of Governments (NHCOG). We have obtained $250,000 in state grants, the only state grants made to community telecommunications efforts over the last three years. We have surveyed our broadband and mobile access gaps and data rates. We have studied the legal conditions around municipal broadband and formed a business model that works within them assuming a few tweaks to the law. We have conducted extensive reviews with prospective partners and developed an economic model of a future network. We are fully poised now to take the last critical step—persuading our communities to share in the costs. The costs are a fraction of the costs of roads and sewer systems. But broadband is now as essential as roads, as electricity, as indoor plumbing. Everyone should have it.
Our region comprises 25 municipalities in the northwest corner: 21 from the NHCOG and four located south of the COG who have expressed interest in a new universal network. We are not restricted to this group nor do we need all municipalities to participate to have a viable business proposition. Indeed, our current plan starts with just one town and grows organically from there. Our region has about 180,000 residents, 76,000 homes, and 2290 miles of road, the key parameters for puzzling out a network. Our region is larger than any single city in Connecticut.
Here are the hurdles: Connecticut utilities law is complex and not very friendly; we lack any existing regional agency to construct our network; and getting 25 communities who want the networkto agree on details and funding is like raking water uphill. So we have recently decided to start with one community, create a blueprint from the experience that other communities may follow, and migrate towards a regional cooperative. However, each community will follow the same business model. Municipalities will install and own the trunk wiring on the poles, one or more private partners will supply wiring to the premises, all electronics, and services over the network. The model follows the way we organize roads and sewer systems.
We have not consummated a deal with anyone. In practical terms we cannot until some legal problems are worked out with the state and that first municipality has voted to move ahead with the network. However, we have had serious discussions with enough vendors to know that we can do the network on the terms proposed. We are working closely now with a back-haul vendor and ISP, a telephone service vendor, a construction vendor, and more than one organization interested in the long term business prospects in home networking and network operations.
Northwest Connect now works with the NHCOG and the Northwest Connecticut Economic Development Corporation to implement a regional economic development plan. Anchoring the plan is a regional fiber optic network. But the plan focuses on a few target business areas that appear favorable to our region—agriculture, rural health care, education, and real estate. To make progress in these areas as well as the network itself we are forming five innovation committees whose membership includes community and business leaders in each segment. Should you have an interest in helping any of these committees please let us know.
Health Care Projects issues in regional health care and develops some practical ideas for remediation and new products that depend upon emerging technologies.
Agriculture Projects regional issues in small-farm agriculture and develops some practical ideas for remediation and new products that depend upon emerging technologies.
Education Projects regional issues in education and develops some practical ideas for remediation and new products that depend upon emerging technologies.
Real Estate Projects regional issues in real estate and develops plans for promoting regional real estate for young people moving here to work in emerging technologies
Venture Capital Builds a network of venture capitalist to work with prospective start-ups or relatively new and small businesses in the areas of health care, agriculture, and education that can capitalize on America’s first fully wired gigabit region.