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MBI to move on broadband cable

Baker administration sends letter to towns put on ‘pause’



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Without ever using the word, “pause,” the Gov. Charlie Baker administration and its Massachusetts Broadband Institute recently sent a letter to town officials and legislators to explain what work is being done to provide “sustainable, affordable broadband” while the state has held up much of the spending on the project.

The March 14 letter also says that MBI will proceed with broadband expansion in partially served cable towns, “where cost-effective and sustainable solutions are identified and access to financing is assured.”

For the last several months, according to the letter, the Baker administration has been reviewing broadband expansion strategies being proposed in western Massachusetts and is “working to ensure that public investments will be sound.”

Several weeks ago, MBI announced it would “pause” spending while it negotiated with the WiredWest collaborative of unserved western Massachusetts towns over how best to spend the state’s $50 million in “final mile” Internet expansion money.

“Our goal is to develop and execute a strategy that will provide broadband access to the greatest number of residents possible, access available sources of financing, and offer the best value for the public investment,” says the letter.

It goes on to say the administration’s review and analysis includes a review of technologies, cost projections, and “financeable” solutions for broadband in western Massachusetts communities, many of which do not have bond ratings for borrowing $1 million or more, for the towns’ two-thirds share of costs for the fiber-optic network.

“The Administration wants to ensure affordability and operating sustainability for projects receiving (state) funds,” the letter says.

MBI is to analyze and develop criteria for operating and governance models and review available technologies and best practices from Massachusetts, other states and internationally for broadband access solutions. And it is to “review the plans and options for municipal borrowing and broadband project financing, including the exploration of potential federal loan programs.”

The state has designated $50 million to help unserved and partially served rural towns to gain broadband access. Of that sum, $5 million is to be used to expand cable access in towns already with limited cable (TV) access; $5 million is be allocated for planning grants; and $40 million is to help pay for roughly one-third of construction costs for fiber, with the towns to pay about two-thirds of the cost within their borders.

In December, former director Eric Nakajima announced that the allocation of money to towns was “on pause,” while the Executive Office of Administration and Finance reviewed the plans and proposals.

In the March 14 letter, state officials said: “The MBI will continue to proceed with projects where cost-effective and sustainable solutions are identified and access to financing is assured, including the broadband extensions program in partially served cable communities.”