In Ashfield, a Tower Might Rise…and Then Again, Might Not

Spending time up in the village of Wendell offers a new perspective on life in the Valley. As soon as you traverse Rte 63 on the way up North Leverett Road, the phone begins to weaken and then for the rest of the way, it’s no bars at all. I’ve gotten used to a new phenomenon–don’t bother looking at your iPhone because nothing will show up on it and I won’t miss any calls…because they won’t go through. I heard today that Wendell was the last town in Massachusetts to get wired for electricity back in the day.

Two items in today’s papers relate to the above. First, I read that the FCC is reviewing ways to spend the $8 billion that’s collected each year from fees levied on everybody’s cellphone and landline bills. You know, that little charge that says Universal Service Fund? It was designed to help provide phone lines in rural areas, but now, the idea is to use it to bring high speed internet to the remaining half of all the houses in the US who can’t get fast web connection. There are 18 million households who can’t get it now. The hitch is that it will allow phone companies to slightly raise fees in areas that are now subsidized and possibly lower them for others. But there isn’t a big need to fund wireline phones any more, since so many people are ditching their home phones and using cellphones.

In Ashfield, GAW cellular has an innovative plan to bring high speed internet to an eager group of potential customers. According to company spokesman David Dwyer there are between 200 and 300 households who are on a list waiting to hook up when it goes on line. But nothing is easy in a small New England village.

GAW’s plan would site an 80 foot high tower (painted to blend in, say officials) on top of Peter Hill. Twelve years ago, another company wanted to put up a radio tower there, and was denied, but that one was 140 feet. Now the company faces the classic NIMBY reactions that make bringing service so hard…Plannning board Chair Michael Fitzgerald has worried out loud about being able to see the tower from Ashfield Lake. But Dwyer says he has history on his side–there was once a forest fire tower there and it was also used during WW II as an aircraft lookout.

I wish GAW well, since siting towers is the toughest thing about providing a new service…now it’s time to rally those 200 households to convince the planners that the tower won’t make the pretty town of Ashfield too ugly.