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Patrick’s  $40 million would bring  broadband home

The Patrick administration, which plans next week to introduce its $71.5 million, 1,200-mile “middle mile” fiber-optic network across rural western Massachusetts, is looking at floating a second $40 million broadband bond to finish the “last mile” as well.

The “middle-mile” network brings telecommunication connectivity to the region from the broadband nexus in Boston and Springfield, from which a “last-mile” network brings it to homes and businesses.

The proposed bond — part of a $3.8 billion, four-year bond package filed by Gov. Deval Patrick last week to invest the state’s infrastructure — may be used by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to build a fiber-to-the home network in towns unserved or under-served with high-speed telecommunications.

The $40 million for last-mile broadband is part of an $869 million information technology and innovation bond bill.

MBI Director Judith Dumont, who is preparing for the first section of the MassBroadband 123 “middle mile” network to be turned on in the southern Berkshires next week, with the first of three sections in Franklin County slated to be ready next month, said the last-mile bond represents the governor’s making good on his commitment to ensure that affordable broadband is delivered to even the most rural parts of the commonwealth.

“We think that’s really good news. This will be a way to leverage additional investment that will be needed to finish the job, the way we worked with the middle-mile build-out.”

The MassBroadband 123 project, which connects 123 unserved and under-served towns in western and central Massachusetts, was funded with the state’s 2008 broadband bond bill together with $45.5 million in federal stimulus money, along with a $30.7 million fiber-optic line along Interstate 91.

“I think it’s good news,” echoed Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Linda Dunlavy, who is also an MBI board member and who has worked for nearly a decade and a half to bring high-speed telecommunications to the most rural towns in the region.

“I know that MBI, as they were building the middle-mile network, were also thinking about the last-mile network,” she said. “The governor is recognizing that we aren’t done with the middle mile, and that we have more to go.”

When it comes to having MBI build that 45-town last-mile network to bring broadband to 25,000 homes Dumont said, “We have not made any decisions like that at this time and will consider all options available to us utilizing a public procurement vehicle.”

But area legislators heard during a briefing Tuesday with MBI officials that MBI is seriously considering using the bond money, or a combination of bond money and federal loan or grant funds to entice a private contractor to build a last mile network.

Those legislators, who said Thursday they expect the bond measure to pass the Legislature easily, could be helpful in seeing the broadband project to completion.

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said that MBI plans to use the $10 to $15 million remaining from the first $40 million bond to plan the last-mile buildout. And although it might seem that the governor’s latest proposal flies in the face of the original argument of using the middle mile to attract private investors to do the rest, Rosenberg said the roughly $100 million cost of that fiber-to-the-home project will still have to be “leveraged” by the proposed $40 million bond.

“So they’re actually doing what they said,” he said.

Added Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, “We’ve realized we have to be flexible in the plan we’ve developed, because the environment has changed significantly.”

“I just want to get to the last mile solution and get it done as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. “The fact that MBI now feels it has the capacity and a plan to do that (last-mile buildout) if the new bond bill is authorized, moves the ball forward. MBI now has a track record of doing the middle mile. I’m pretty optimistic, with this new money on the table, that we can have the resources needed.”

Kulik agreed that given the slow economy, “We need to do things a little differently than we envisioned, four or five years ago. ”

Instead, “Having a public entity build and own the middle-mile and last-mile systems,” and then seek competitive bids for service providers to use them, Kulik said, “is probably the fastest and best way to go from here.”

But since the 2008 broadband bill was approved, Kulik said, “I think the general public has become far more aware of how critical broadband is to our economic and social future. It’s not an option anymore; it’s a necessity and it’s been a necessity a long time.”

A last-mile buildout by the state, if the new bond measure is approved and MBI decides to take that approach, makes unclear the role of the 42-town Wired West municipal cooperative created to do that work.

“We were definitely surprised,” said Monica Webb, spokeswoman for the Wired West co-operative that’s been planning to build a nearly 2,000-mile last mile broadband network for its towns. “We didn’t see this coming, and we were pretty much blindsided by it. This is an attempt to fulfill their mandate, and I applaud that.

“But I hope the towns using that service have some input as to what the pricing is.”

Webb, whose co-op includes 17 Franklin County towns, including Leverett, which is building its own fiber network, said Wired West may choose to apply to be the service provider if MBI decides to build out its own last-mile network.

“We’ll have to re-evaluate what we’re doing and determine if there’s a case for being an (Internet service provider) on this future MBI network.

She added, “We do still believe a municipally-owned and locally operated last-mile network is better for local employment and better for ensuring the network is operated in the users’ best interests.”

Webb acknowledged that MBI probably has access to lower borrowing costs to get the last-mile network built and has a good record of building the 1,200-mile network to this point. “But we do want to ensure the pricing is affordable,” she said.

Kulik added, “I want to be sure that Wired West is part of the conversation and perhaps be part of the solution here. I don’t want to see their work just abandoned. I think now we need to have a conversation. We encouraged them to reach out to Wired West. Can there be a meaningful collaboration?”

The other bond bills filed last week include a $375 million supplemental capital measure “immediately needed to ensure ongoing (information) projects will not stop, and ensure facility improvement projects are not further deferred,” a $567 million housing bond, a $911.5 million energy and environmental bond for coastal repair projects and a program to cut energy consumption 20 to 25 percent at 700 state sites, a $928 million bond for state public safety facilities and library construction; and $177 million for investments to six military bases with an impact on 46,500 jobs in the state.

In addition, the Patrick administration filed a $19 billion, 10-year transportation bond bill that the governor says will help pay for needed road, bridge and public transit projects, spurring economic growth and creating jobs.

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

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