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Sharon Connect Task Force Co-chairs Meghan Flanagan, left, and Jill Drew shown in front of Sharon Town Hall. Photo by Leila Hawken

Two who spurred Internet access for all in Sharon

“This work allows me to share my technical knowledge as well as my love of guiding and teaching others in how to be successful with technology.” Meghan Flanagan, Sharon Connect Task Force Co-Chair

SHARON — Years of strategic planning, focused research, community interaction and corporate negotiation brought about the town’s approval of a contract agreement between the town and Comcast for a $1.6 million partnership to expand internet service along 28.5 miles of road to every home and business along the way, about 250.

Sharon Connect Task Force Co-chairs Jill Drew and Meghan Flanagan guided the process begun in 2019 and supported by the expertise of the other eight task force members.

A town-wide survey was part of the planning process, as was commissioning a study by the Sertex Broadband Solutions, completed in February 2020. That study described an alternative plan whereby the town would initiate its own utility to provide town-wide broadband coverage at a cost of $12.5 million.

Throughout, negotiations continued with Comcast, ultimately resulting in its offer of a partnership plan.

Following a town meeting last month and voters’ approval of that partnership, the town began the process of naming a Contract Performance Manager, an essential step toward finalizing the contract.

Once the contract is signed, Comcast’s work will begin with arranging required permits to use existing utility poles for its cables. Completion is anticipated in 2023.

Interviewed in December, Drew and Flanagan reflected on their backgrounds, their attraction to volunteerism and their roles as project leaders.

“We kept our goal in mind – improving connectivity for everyone in Sharon — but were open about how to do that,” Drew said, indicating that they researched models throughout the U.S., particularly looking at western Massachusetts.

They soon determined that Sharon differed from models in Massachusetts where regional and state funding is available. Each of Sharon’s neighboring towns would need to approve funds. So rather than trying to build a regional consensus, they focused on what Sharon needed and would be willing to fund.

It all started with a survey to see if residents would consider this connectivity issue a priority. “We really wanted to know what people thought,” Drew said, noting that 551 responses were received from a mailing to about 1,600 homes.

Next, Drew recommended creation of a task force of members who offered diverse skills, open minds, enthusiasm for the mission and the willingness to meet regularly. She stressed the importance of working closely with town officials, and subscribers, keeping them informed with public information meetings and social media posts.

“Try to involve the community, not market to them,” Drew advised.

Drew majored in literature at American University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984 and had a 25-year career as a print journalist, first as a reporter covering Wall Street for various trade publications, then as a reporter and editor for New York Newsday, and The Washington Post.

“My husband and I began visiting Sharon with our son when my husband’s father, Robert Drew, and his second wife, Anne Drew, moved here in 2007. Derek and I decided to move to Sharon full-time in 2016 after our son went to college” Drew recalled.

Today,  she manages Drew Associates, the independent documentary film company her father-in-law founded in 1960, mainly licensing films and footage from Drew Associates’ archive of iconic cinema verité films.

“We fell in love with Sharon,” Drew said.

One of her first volunteer opportunities was to become an Emergency Medical Responder on the Sharon Fire Department Ambulance Squad. “I did it because I had such gratitude to members of the squad, especially Jamie and Tom Casey and Betsy Hall; they made it possible for Bob to live the last years of his life safely in his own home after Anne passed away in 2012.”

“I like puzzles and I love collaborating with like-minded people on solving complex problems,” Drew said.

“Incumbent providers had demonstrated that they didn’t care about those in Sharon who had no high-speed access,” she explained. “I was determined to make them care and get everyone connected, even if it meant building our own town-owned network. Like electricity, clean running water, universal mail service, public schools, safe roadways, the internet is an essential service. If private industry won’t provide it, the community should step in.”

Drew noted that task force members have a diverse set of skills and experience.

Brent Prindle, former owner of Cornwall Electric, knows how Sharon’s roads are wired.

Barbara Prindle, who chaired the Sharon Board of Finance for years, guided the task force through all the municipal approval processes, including getting a line item in the budget to fund the feasibility analysis and getting a Town Meeting organized to approve the Comcast proposal.

John Brett brought finance, management, and people skills; Eric Simon, a telecom consultant, brought a deep understanding of the industry; Ben Newhouse lent his tech and data savvy; Patrick Gallaway, his analytic skills; Beth Rybczyk, her experience on Sharon’s Sewer & Water Commission; Roger Lourie’s engineering skills; Alexandra Peters and Linda Neiberg offered their writing abilities.

Drew recalled the work of former Selectman Jessica Fowler, who championed Sharon’s need for universal broadband access for years.

“I was one of the people who raised her hand when Jessica asked for volunteers to continue the mission.” That was in November of 2019, she said.  “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, frankly. But I have learned so much and made so many great friends on this task force that I’m delighted I did it.”

Flanagan, with husband Casey, moved to Sharon in 2003 when she accepted a position in the stables at the Weatherstone Estate, just after graduating from Marist College in Poughkeepsie

“I love living in Sharon because the area is beautiful. You can live in the woods and enjoy nature just by looking out the window or stepping out the front door,” Flanagan said.

Her volunteer work began with motherhood, Flanagan recalled. After her son Jack was born, she soon realized that the daycare centers he attended were always in need of support from families. “This really began my passion for volunteering in town,” she said.

Flanagan’s day job is as Chief Operations Officer for a non-profit organization. This position has allowed her to see the importance of volunteers and their positive impact on an organization and/or a community.

“A lot of my passion with volunteering comes from a desire to fix things,” Flanagan explained. In her current role on the task force, she said often she helps individuals with getting or enhancing their internet connection. “This work allows me to share my technical knowledge as well as my love of guiding and teaching others in how to be successful with technology.”

Flanagan said a trip to Ireland opened her eyes to the problem of connectivity.

“The home we stayed at was on a sheep farm in the remote countryside accessed by a single lane road two miles long. The road was narrow with no shoulder, so you had to pull over (or sometimes back up) to let another driver going the opposite direction pass,” she recalled. Yet even in that remote countryside, the home they visited had excellent internet service with enough bandwidth for three working professionals and four pre-teen and teen children to game at the same time.

She was amazed that such a remote place in Ireland had better internet access than the town of Sharon, only a two-hour train ride from New York City.

“We approached this problem with many solutions (cell towers, satellite dishes, municipal fiber network, partnership with the incumbents), but we did not give up on any one of them.”

For other towns grappling with connectivity issues, Flanagan said, “My advice is, explore every option and do not dismiss any of them until everyone is connected.”

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