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Ready to go the final mile

State bill patches gaps, provides flexibility in getting high-speed Internet to every home in Mass.

Included in the legislation passed in the final days of this Beacon Hill session is a measure giving Massachusetts Broadband Institute the mechanism to begin using a $50 million bond to help build last-mile telecommunication in unserved and underserved parts of the state.

The multi-faceted IT bond bill, passed by both legislative branches, remains in conference committee.

The legislation, authored by Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Stephen Kulik, D- Worthington, gives clear authority to the institute to work with service providers — public, non-profit or for-profit — to invest in broadband infrastructure in “underserved” cable-reliant communities where cable service is unavailable in parts of the towns.

“This would enable MBI to use the $50 million in the (pending Information Technology Bond) in innovative and flexible ways,” said Kulik, speaking about the companion measure, and pointing to a model used in Vermont, where nearly all of that state’s addresses are served by broadband.

The legislation, which Gov. Deval Patrick has 10 days to sign, and which Downing and Kulik drafted in consultation with the MBI and cable provider Comcast, was designed to help extend the bond’s use to include hilltowns like Shelburne, Buckland and Conway that are “partially served” by cable providers.

Downing added that in towns where cable companies already provide some service, MBI and the cable provider would work with the local cable authorities to enter agreements for building out their networks.

Kulik, who helped increase the bond to $50 million from Patrick’s originally proposed $40 million, said about $5 million is targeted for subsidies for incumbent cable providers to extend their networks. In the case of partially served Montague, he said, it could also be used to help an unserved area close to Leverett connect with that town’s broadband network, which Leverett is developing on its own.

The legislation also allows MBI to negotiate with Leverett to provide help with its network, either in funding or equipment.

Some of the money may also be used by MBI — a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative with a mission of expanding affordable high-speed Internet access across the state — as a match to get additional federal funding.

Kulik said he met this week with institute officials, who are developing its plans for providing last-mile service in unserved and underserved communities — plans that he expects will be announced in August.

As for the municipal cooperative of towns lacking any high-speed telecommuncation, WiredWest, Kulik said, it’s uncertain what its role will be in those communities, “but I hope it will play an active role, because everyone feels it’s done great work.”

That role may entail building or operating the network in those towns, Kulik said.

The legislation would also create a working group “of parties interested in and eligible for the grants” to provide advice and feedback to MassTech and the MBI on the competitive process of providing grants to providers.

“Between the IT bond and this legislation, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of activity,” said Downing, speaking of MBI’s work on extending its work to under-served towns. “Once the bond is signed, we’ll be seeing them more in western Mass., discussing not the ‘if’ of implementation, but the ‘how’ and ‘in what form.’”

On the Web: http://1.usa.gov/1nGZipm

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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