The Last Mile: State connecting with towns over broadband options

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Town leaders from across Berkshire County will speak out Thursday on the lingering broadband divide, albeit briefly.

Starting at 2 p.m. in Worthington Town Hall, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will take testimony from members of select boards and local broadband committees.

The event could run as long as four hours, with each speaker allotted three minutes to comment.

The MBI says it wants feedback on proposed private-sector solutions to the broadband divide.

But given widespread frustration over the pace of "last-mile" connections to rural homes and businesses, speakers may give voice to the broader issue of the digital divide — and the state's handling of it.

"We look forward to hearing from many of you," Peter Larkin, chair of the MBI board, wrote to town leaders last week.

The session comes a year after Gov. Charlie Baker ordered a pause in last-mile planning, following the MBI's decision not to back the regional fiber-optic network planned by WiredWest.

Last fall, after a spring shakeup in leadership and a turn toward private-sector solutions, the MBI sought proposals from companies willing to accept state subsidies to provide broadband service in unserved towns.

At the start of its work, the MBI listed 19 towns in the Berkshires as unserved. Since then, internet users in several Berkshires communities — Lanesborough, West Stockbridge and Hinsdale — have been connected through expansion of Charter's cable network, financed in part by a state construction grant of $1.6 million.

Only Comcast and Charter met the requirements of the state's request last fall. And together, the two companies expressed interest in building out their networks in just a handful of towns.

Six firms in all filed proposals to compete for $19.8 million in construction grants. One did not list any Berkshires towns.

Four of them lack the $100 million in annual revenue the MBI set as a minimum. However, Larkin has told The Eagle the institute is negotiating with companies. Further, he said it planned to keep the request for proposals open to new responses.

While Thursday's session is mainly for elected officials and broadband committee members, Larkin's letter notes that "all interested members of the public are encouraged to submit written testimony."

Brian Noyes, a spokesman for the MBI, said comments can be sent by email to the MBI's deputy director, Edmund Donnelly, at donnelly@masstech.org.

The private company responses were posted Jan. 23 on the MBI website.

They can be found at http://bit.ly/2lR9JIi.

The Worthington Town Hall is located at 160 Huntington Road.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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