Massachusetts Broadband Institute board chairman cites progress in last-mile projects
Nearly a year after changing course, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute is pushing on multiple fronts to bring fast internet to unserved communities, its board chairman says.
"We're making progress. Some days more progress than others," Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board, told The Eagle. "This is a very dynamic time."
After a pause in early 2016 ordered by Gov. Charlie Baker, the institute last May still faced the challenge of connecting residents in 53 communities lacking broadband internet access.
That was the state of affairs nearly nine years after former Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Broadband Act and pledged to close the digital divide in Massachusetts.
"We realized that it's a harder problem than we had imagined and we're going to have to do this town by town, project by project," Larkin said.
The state's strategy has continued to evolve — most recently through a new grant program that would free up money to towns that want to build municipal networks, rather than receive coverage from private cable providers.
As of now, as many as seven Berkshire County towns may opt to go it alone in that way, according to the latest tally, tapping into funds the MBI had previously reserved for design and engineering work by its staff or vendors. In all, 22 towns have asked for applications for those grants. Taxpayers in the towns would still be expected to cover two-thirds of the full network cost.
At the same time, other towns are signing on to offers from Comcast and Charter Communications that will not require taxpayer investments, an option repeatedly recommended by Larkin and Timothy Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. MassTech oversees the MBI operations from its headquarters in Westborough.
The Select Board in Tyringham, for instance, voted April 11 to accept an offer from Charter.
Elsewhere, talks are continuing. Peru officials were to meet Monday with MBI representatives and Becket is awaiting a presentation from Charter, even as it considers going it alone to build a network.
While some communities are sifting multiple options, others have far fewer, if any, clear choices on deck.
"There will be one town that will be last," Larkin noted. But he said the governor's office is determined to bring last-mile broadband access to all communities.
For the most remote rural towns, with the highest number of road miles to cover and scant population, answers may not come until the MBI continues its negotiations with two telecommunications outfits that have not yet been officially vetted for participation.
"The 'windshield time' for employees is a challenge," said Larkin, referring to travel times for network maintenance crews. "They go where there is return on investment. We understand that."
The MBI is still in talks with Crocker Communications to update its proposal to bring a private network to certain towns. The multinational telecom firm Fujitsu is a proposed partner in a move to bolster the financial underpinning of Crocker's proposal. The talks are considered important because the Crocker bid covers 12 communities that were not identified by Comcast or Charter or by Mid-Hudson or Frontier, two smaller cable companies.
The MBI has "qualified" the Frontier proposal. "This is a path forward," Larkin said of that company's pitch for towns in south county.
Further, the MBI is awaiting a revised proposal from Westfield Gas + Electric, the public utility that responded to the state's request for proposals.
And all parties are waiting for the dust to settle on the big company proposals, since they were grouped by town. Whether they go forward may depend on acceptance by individual towns.
The news is better for residents of three Berkshires towns — Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge — that are part of a cable expansion project involving Charter and approved last August.
Edmund Donnelly, the MBI's deputy director, said that $1.6 million agreement is resulting in a full makeover of Charter's ability to provide broadband to all customers in the towns. The company's old network wasn't able to meet speed requirements, he said.
"We treated those three towns as unserved," Donnelly said.
And outside of the county, the nine towns in which Comcast is extending service may find new lines activated sooner than expected. The towns are Buckland, Chester, Conway, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham and Shelburne.
The agreement called for that work to be done by Aug. 19, 2018, and reach an additional 1,089 premises.
But Donnelly said that Comcast's work will reach an additional 168 subscribers — over and above its agreement to serve 96 percent of each town's premises. The project may also wrap up six to eight months ahead of schedule.
"We've had a really good partnership with Comcast through this project," Donnelly said. "I think that's great news for the folks in the towns."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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