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Towns pleased with changes to state broadband funding



Recorder Staff
Thursday, March 30, 2017

Local officials say they hope the state’s revised broadband policy will break the gridlock on which the internet build-out for unserved towns has stalled over the last two years.

“This new grant program is a huge step forward for last-mile broadband,” said Bob Handsaker, co-chair of the Charlemont Broadband Committee. “It ensures that all of the currently allocated state funds are fully available to towns that want to build their own fiber-to-the-home networks. More importantly, each town can control how those funds are used, allowing the town to select their own partners, minimize risk and make the state funding stretch as far as possible,” said Handsaker.

The state designated $40 million for 41 towns with no access to high-speed internet service — a sum that would cover about a third of the costs of bringing broadband to homes and businesses in those towns. Roughly half of each town’s grant money was to be spent on construction, while the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) was to use the remaining allocation to design and engineer the network. Towns that wanted to build networks without engineering and design assistance from MBI would have been eligible only for the “construction” portion of the grant. But the change in the grant process, through the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), will allow towns to apply and receive their full allocation of the $40 million grant. Franklin County’s “unserved” towns eligible for part of this state grant money include: Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury, Warwick and Wendell.

“The streamlined grant program … allows towns to get moving right away,” he said.

“The Baker administration has really listened to the towns,” Handsaker continued. “We are grateful to Gov. Baker and his administration for their support and their ongoing commitment to bring broadband to all of the unserved towns in Massachusetts.”

Earlier this week, after a presentation of a new grant plan by Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s board of directors voted to move the last-mile grant-making process to the EOHED, which has more experience expediting such state-town cost-sharing programs.

They also voted to make the full broadband grants available to each town, instead of holding back the engineering and design funds. Towns will be able to start applying for their full broadband allocation grants on Monday.

“We anticipated this announcement and have already begun coordinating design and engineering,” said David Kulp of the Ashfield Broadband Committee. “A direct grant program will give Ashfield maximum control to use all of our allocated broadband funding efficiently and quickly, without having to coordinate and conform with ever-shifting MBI plans.”

“We are excited and hopeful,” he said.

“But this only addresses one problem — how the towns can use state allocated funds,” Kulp continued. “There are other major problems that the governor needs to still address. The state has so far invested only about two-thirds of what other states like New York have invested per unserved household. And the state has a middle mile asset — the MassBroadband 123 — that could be leveraged to save towns $100,000s, but instead is under-utilized.”

WiredWest

The WiredWest small-town cooperative sees this as a very positive step forward,” said Charley Rose, a member of WiredWest’s executive committee and Worthington resident. “It allows us to help our member towns to move forward quickly.”

Rose and other members of WiredWest’s executive committee on Wednesday toured the broadband facilities of Westfield Gas & Electric, the public utility that has applied to construct the fiber optic network for towns that are still without high-speed broadband.

WiredWest is considering hiring either Westfield Gas & Electric or OTT Communications to operate and manage regional broadband services, after the town networks have been built.

Westfield Gas & Electric built and runs Westfield’s broadband and is overseeing a $15 million broadband expansion in that city. OTT Communications, based in Granby, is now managing Leverett’s broadband system.

WiredWest is hoping to provide regional broadband operating and management services, hiring professionals to oversee the regional operations and maintenance of the town-built systems.