Hilltowns still see urgent need for broadband

For The Recorder
Friday, February 17, 2017

WORTHINGTON — Representatives from a dozen towns attended a public hearing Thursday held by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to gather feedback on six commercial proposals designed to bring broadband to underserved communities in western Massachusetts.

Peter Larkin, chairman of MBI’s board, Ed Donnelly, deputy director of MBI, and Bill Ennen, last mile implementation liaison for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, listened as town officials detailed the urgent need for broadband services in their towns, with the majority supporting a proposal from Westfield Gas & Electric (doing business as Whip City Fiber).

“Westfield Gas & Electric is far and away the best proposal I have seen,” said Goshen Select Board member Wayne Glaser, whose comment was echoed by many in attendance.

In January, MBI announced that six private companies had applied for internet technology grants to build, run and own broadband networks in the 40 towns that still have no access to high-speed internet.

These companies included Charter Communications, Comcast, Crocker Communications, Fiber Connect LLC, Mid-Hudson Data Corp., and Westfield Gas & Electric.

Towns would pay two-thirds of the cost to build the broadband networks, with MBI paying of one-third of the bill.

“Crocker, Comcast and Charter asked for millions of dollars more than Westfield Gas & Electric,” Gayle Huntress, co-chairwoman of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee, said.

Bob Handsaker, the MBI town designee for Charlemont, said Westfield Gas & Electric was the only company to proposes an a la carte menu of services, from design and engineering to construction management to network operation.

Most of the town representatives said they preferred to build and own their own broadband networks, rather than have those networks operated through a regional organization like WiredWest.

WiredWest recently offered a plan to provide operational services to towns that build their own networks.

By regionalizing the operational services the towns could save on operating costs.

“The towns are stronger and safer it we work together,” said Glaser, noting that small towns are used to working on a regional basis for large financial endeavors such as regional schools. “So I would appreciate it if you acknowledged WiredWest as an option.”

“Out of all of the responses, the only one that makes any sense for us is Westfield Gas and Electric,” Jeremy Dunn, member of the Becket broadband working group said. “But once that network is built we don't have the staff and resources to operate the network but WiredWest does.”

Marilyn Willson of the Rowe Select Board said her town would also want to own its own network and have it regionally managed by WiredWest

“We want to own the network and we are willing and able to take that responsibility. We know what we want, we know what we need, and we know how to do it.”

Many town representatives expressed a sense of urgency saying that they have been waiting over nine years for a broadband plan to come together. This they say affects their towns’ economic viability and sustainability.

“Our community needs it for economic development, to support local businesses, and to sustain our real estate market. We need it so our children can do their homework at home, rather than at school or in the town hall parking lot,” Handsaker said.

Chesterfield Town Administrator Sue Labrie echoed Handsaker.

“We have an aging population, no younger people are moving into town, and the one general store that we had is now closed,” she said.

Almost every town representative asked MBI to release the funding that has been earmarked for the Last Mile Project, so that communities could finally make headway on the broadband issue.

“It is a very clear path forward for the towns,” Dunn said. “But the money just needs to be released.”

Larkin said the information gathered at the hearing would be shared and considered at the MBI board’s next meeting in two weeks.