The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has decided to use grants to attract private sector internet businesses to run and manage the future fiber optic networks of unserved towns.
But some town officials in places without broadband access are concerned that state policy changes for the Last Mile broadband build-out could slow down the process or ending up costing the towns more money.
Building on the success of its $4 million grant for the Comcast broadband expansion in nine towns and a $1.6 million grant for Charter Communications Inc. to expand and upgrade broadband in three Berkshire towns, MBI will use a competitive “request for proposal” (RFP) process of grant solicitations “to harness and leverage increasing interest among private providers serving western Massachusetts,” says a letter that MBI sent out to unserved last-mile towns.
In an Oct. 12 letter to towns, MBI Chairman Peter Larkin said the purpose of this policy change is to advance last mile solutions that will speed up provision of broadband services, “reduce and possibly avoid the need for municipalities to invest their own capital and operating funds, and eliminate long-term financial risks … associated with network sustainability.”
Larkin said the group is establishing “stringent eligibility criteria to ensure that only credible, financially healthy and experienced private providers are putting forth proposals.”
The letter goes on to say that towns will retain decision-making authority on whether to accept and move forward with a private sector solution, and that MBI will consult with each town or group of towns during its review and evaluation of private sector responses.
“MBI will make available the construction funds that have been set aside and allocated for the build-out of municipally owned networks. MBI will work with the towns to evaluate options ... (if) the amount of funds required to induce a private provider to serve a town exceeds the amount of MBI funds available,” it states.
And where does this leave WiredWest, the multi-town collaborative?
“We are putting together a plan that doesn’t invove MBI,” says WiredWest spokesman Tim Newman. “MBI has left this open-ended. Each town is dealing with MBI separately, getting the infrastructure built. Once it’s built, it’s up to (the town) what to do next.”
Newman said the town could either go with an MBI-chosen private provider or chose a different network operator, such as WiredWest. WiredWest is now revising its business plan, so that it can serve as an aggregator and administrator for towns that want to be part of a regional network. By serving several small towns together, he said, WiredWest will be in a position to negotiate better prices for internet service providers and network operators than a small town, with less than 1,000 residents may be able to do alone.
In Ashfield Monday night, the Selectboard reviewed the letters and raised concerns about whether the town’s current plan is “on track,” or whether this policy revision will affect the $770,000 for construction costs and $640,000 in professional services. The town is to contribute the remaining $2.3 million estimated for the capital project.
Technology Committee Chairman David Kulp said he didn’t believe the change will affect Ashfield’s build-out; but he agreed with the Selectboard that getting a letter from MBI, reaffirming its commitment to the town, “wouldn’t hurt.”
Selectboard member Thomas Carter said he thinks the build-out is “underfunded, compared to the cable towns.”
“We want to make sure the last letter we have doesn’t contradict what we were told before,” he added.