Our Opinion: Closing last mile in Berkshire towns

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"We're ready to go" and "Everybody's champing at the bit" were the reactions of two small-town Berkshirites on Saturday about the prospect of "the last mile" of broadband finally reaching homes and businesses in their communities. Their enthusiasm is representative of many Berkshire residents who have waited long enough.

Berkshire elected officials and members of town tech committees gathered with their counterparts from small towns elsewhere in Western Massachusetts to meet with WiredWest officials eager to operate their broadband networks (Eagle, Jan. 29). Five private companies from the large to the small are offering proposals to provide broadband to portions of the Berkshires (Eagle, Jan. 30). It may not be easy for towns to sort through their options, but at least broadband is moving forward again.

Completion of the last mile by the nonprofit WiredWest was coming into view 13 months ago when the state abruptly brought it to a halt. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute had problems with the business model of WiredWest, which had planned to build and operate a regional broadband system. MBI, to the frustration of WiredWest and Berkshire communities waiting to sign on, never adequately explained the specific nature of their objections, but with a new MBI team in place, WiredWest is now poised to operate systems for towns after the towns have worked with MBI to construct them.

Nine Berkshire towns have stuck with WiredWest, and after a lost year, officials from New Marlborough, Cummington and Mount Washington were among those who made it clear at WiredWest's informational meeting Saturday in Northampton that they are eager to get going. The Digital Age has long been upon us, and small Berkshire towns need high-speed Internet to educate students, attract and keep small businesses and communicate efficiently with state and federal government agencies.

The five private companies that met MBI's January deadline to compete for $19.8 million in construction grants offer a variety of ideas, some only covering a portion of Berkshire towns seeking the last mile and others proposing added costs for those communities. The companies are generally vague about start-up dates, although one company says it may take four years to reach every home in the towns it serves, which will be tough to sell. It should be noted that the Federal Communication Commission last week approved $170 million for a broadband roll-out in New York State, a far bigger incentive than the MBI offering even considering that New York covers a larger geographical area than Massachusetts. We urge our congressional delegation to explore greater FCC funding options.

That last mile may start to close in the near future, and officials in small Berkshire towns will need to carefully consider their options and involve residents in the process. These are extremely important decisions for rural Berkshire County.

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