Massachusetts Broadband Instititue expands options on last-mile broadband
WESTBOROUGH — By loosening its pursestrings, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will provide enhanced choices to dozens of towns clamoring for broadband internet service.
The change clears paths for both public and privately owned networks and comes amid calls by town leaders for faster action.
In a shift its board chairman called "radical," the MBI will free up money until now earmarked for internal engineering use by the institute. Instead, it will provide millions of dollars intended for "professional services" as direct grants to towns that want to build and own their "last mile" systems.
The change could reduce project costs in the bulk of unserved communities that have not drawn interest from private providers, making networks more affordable in communities.
In particular, it paves the way for communities to work with Westfield Gas + Electric, a public utility that has offered to help rural towns build fiber networks at costs town officials have characterized as attractive.
That pledge, described Monday at an MBI board meeting in Westborough, won immediate praise from town representatives present and MBI directors and staff.
"This will look dramatically different to the towns now. They'll get ultimate control," said Bill Ennen, the institute's liaison to unserved towns. "It will change the conversation in Western Mass."
Linda Dunlavy, an MBI board member who runs the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, said, "There will be many towns that will applaud."
Appeal of 'free'
At the same time, the institute will increase the appeal of privately owned networks to the small number of towns courted by Charter and Comcast.
By upping the state's investment by millions of dollars, those towns would not have to contribute any taxpayer dollars at all. Their residents and businesses would subscribe to service that would provide data, voice and cable channels.
The changes outlined Monday are expected to make broadband more affordable to unserved towns in Berkshire County and beyond.
By providing direct grants to towns above and beyond promised construction funding, the MBI gives communities that take that option a clearer path to negotiate with a partner of their choice.
"That is a seminal event," said Timothy J. Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which oversees the MBI.
"I would argue that this is fantastic news and now we are waiting to hear from [towns]," Connelly said.
The policy changes are designed to accelerate progress by the institute, which is charged with closing the digital divide in more than 40 Central and Western Massachusetts communities.
Connelly and Peter Larkin, of Pittsfield, the board's chairman, both declared the policy shifts significant, saying they will help bring progress to a project the MBI undertook more than eight years ago.
"I want MBI adding value. If we're not adding value, I don't want us there," Connelly said, speaking of the new willingness to release money directly to towns that want to build and own their networks. "We should get out of the way, it seems to me."
"We're at an inflection point," Connelly said. "We think a lot has been accomplished. ... We're being a catalyst, not a friction point."
Larkin, the former lawmaker asked by Gov. Charlie Baker last spring to oversee the broadband mission, said the change reflects views expressed by unserved towns and their legislators. At a forum this month in Worthington, town leaders called for the MBI to release the professional services money allocated to them in earlier MBI planning.
"This is clearly a new direction for MBI," Larkin said at Monday's meeting. "We've been listening to towns. And we truly admit that there is a have and a have-not experience in these towns. ... It is time to move forward."
Donald Dubendorf, an MBI board member and attorney in Williamstown, said recent adjustments are paying off.
"I'm very excited where we're at," he said.
Paul McMorrow, director of policy and communications for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which ultimately oversees the broadband project, said Monday that department is "fully committed" to helping unserved towns obtain reliable and sustainable coverage.
The changes revealed Monday are part of that, he said, and recognize the urgency felt by rural residents.
"We want to empower communities to choose their own path forward," McMorrow told The Eagle. "We heard a strong desire to speed up the process. We've heard the message."
Larkin said that though the MBI is poised to award additional money to the private cable companies, he anticipates being able to meet standing commitments to towns.
"We have a pool of money to implement this change," he said of the shifts announced Monday.
In January, the MBI announced that two cable companies, Charter and Comcast, had expressed interest in building broadband networks in selected underserved towns. But the numbers were limited, and came with conditions.
Charter offered to provide service to three Berkshire County towns — Egremont, Monterey and Hancock — and three others. But for three of those towns, it requested funding over and above those communities' planned construction allocations by the MBI.
For Egremont and Monterey alone, the requested amount was $916,426 over the two towns' allocation of $1,340,000.
Comcast didn't offer to cover any Berkshires towns, the closest being Goshen and Montgomery. But in Goshen alone, Comcast is seeking $1,010,000 over the $450,000 the MBI earmarked for that Hampshire County town's construction costs.
McMorrow noted that in Charter's case, there may be net savings, since the private company would not receive allocated "professional services" money and that funding could offset the added construction request.
Larkin said the MBI has reached terms with Charter and is still talking with Comcast. The institute is also negotiating with private companies whose proposals didn't meet stated qualifications, including Crocker Communications of Greenfield and Fiber Connect.
MBI leaders said they are also in talks with those companies and will be negotiating. Crocker expressed interest in all unserved towns, but is requesting an investment of $2,000 to $3,000 per household, which some town representatives dismissed outright.
At the same time, the institute is refining changes in what it is calling the "MBI Assist" option for towns that want to build and own their networks.
A vote on that program had been planned for Monday, but was pulled late Friday due to town concerns about draft language.
"It was a work in progress and we realized that it wasn't ready for a vote," Larkin said Monday.
Through the MBI Assist, towns would receive construction bid packages shaped by MBI staff and an outside design and engineering contractor.
That arrangement may prove less attractive to towns, now that the MBI is willing to grant the design money for their use.
The grants would free towns up to pursue a partnership independently with Westfield Gas + Electric.
Larkin said the MBI team plans to meet Friday with managers of the Westfield utility. "It's a very interesting proposal," he said of the company's offer to assist towns with fiber networks.
Ennen, the MBI field representative, said the town of Otis, which is already working with Westfield Gas + Electric, is pleased with that partnership. "A lot of towns are seeing savings by going with Westfield Gas + Electric," Ennen said in an interview after the board meeting. "Otis will be the bellwether on that."
Before towns are able to receive the grants, they must proceed through the MBI's "readiness" process and receive a letter stating they are set to proceed.
Officials said legal terms of that threshold are still being worked out.
Representatives from Charlemont, Rowe and Worthington — which have no cable suitors — told MBI board members Monday they were pleased by the grant option.
Bob Handsaker, chairman of Charlemont's broadband committee, had been among money who urged MBI representatives gathered in Worthington Feb. 16 to release the professional services money.
"I think this is a lot of what we wanted to hear, but it's still a huge financial stretch for us," Handsaker said of last-mile financing. "I like this attitude of looking at it from the point of view of the towns."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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