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High-speed Internet slow in coming

Fifth-graders in the tiny Berkshire town of Otis got to use the Internet to link up with students in Colombia as part of a dedication for the first phase of the the state plan to build a 1,200-mile broadband network in western Mass. But the message for towns impatient to get high-speed Internet service who gathered at a forum Friday” was “we’re getting there.”

But there still remain issues and obstacles to building an Internet network that will reach every home and business in western Mass., they were told.

The Mass. Broadband Institute’s $71.6 million, 1,200-mile Mass Broadband 123 network, which was originally scheduled to be completed by July 1, is behind schedule, although 97 percent of the fiber has been installed. But even a detailed schedule of when various sections of the so-called “middle-mile” network will be available won’t be available until the end of this month, about 35 people were told at Friday’s session at Greenfield Community College.

But many questions remain about how rural towns with little or no service now will be able to extend that “middle mile” cable the “final mile” all the way into homes.

The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a briefing on its programs that help extend broadband into the hinterland: Rural Utility Service loan and grant programs as well as its Rural Development business programs.

RUS, the heir to the 1930s era Rural Electrical Administration, has about $500 million a year to lend to states, regions and rural communities that are unserved or underserved by broadband providers, although Amherst-based field representative Rob O’Hara told the gathering that the funding is for areas with no more than one service provider, and that as a lender, the agency wants to see a market penetration of at least 20 percent.

MBI is awaiting passage of a $40 million state bond to help extend its wholesale high-speed service “to the home” but it will be for just 45 towns of the 123 communities in its five-county service area that it describes as unserved or underserved. MBI is among those seeking to apply for the RUS funding. Building a fiber-to-the-home network in those towns would cost $80 million to $100 million, for which the state agency is still hoping to find additional funding.

Donna Baron, MBI’s program director, told the gathering, “One thing people have to keep in mind: This thing is still a toddler. Keep your eye on the prize, a big regional solution for everyone. This is just Phase One, it does not go everywhere. It will happen. Four or five years ago, nobody would have believed that we’d be where we are today.”

The 1,200-mile middle network, built with $45.5 million in federal stimulus money, is still undergoing various performance tests before it can be turned over to Axia NG Network, which will operate the system and has contracted with 13 providers so far to distribute service to end-users. Baron blamed project delays on a variety of “extreme” weather” events over the past year and a half, as well as a strike by Verizon workers.

Among those attending Friday’s session were several representatives from the 42-member WiredWest cooperative, half a dozen of whose members will not have access to the MBI’s solution because at least part of their territory is served with high-speed service by Verizon and Comcast.

“I think we’ll be served one way or another,” said Monica Webb, the cooperative’s board chair. Since surveys show that demand for its proposed service averages just 17 percent in those towns, such as Shelburne, Northfield and Conway, versus 45 percent in the other communities, she admitted it will be a challenge to attract enough end-users in the other communities to make building a network financially viable.

“We have to advocate for the unserved areas of those towns,” Webb said.

Baron told the group, “There are financial challenges, there are all sorts of challenges, but they’re not insurmountable. It’s going to happen. To help the residents, in the last mile, we’re really going to need to have a regional solution where we can work together.”

If the state’s bond bill passes, Baron said, the state agency hopes to use it to attract additional public funding and to entice private investors to help get service of at least 9 megabits per second to everyone.

How long that will take — and where the funding will come from — remains the question.

“Towns are feeling abandoned, and that’s not true,” said Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, who is also on the MBI Board of Directors. “MBI’s mission is to get everyone served, not just Western Mass. Eastern and Central Mass. also have pockets of unserved areas. I don’t think any community is going to be abandoned. The public money is meant to incentivize private investment, and there’s hope the commonwealth can continue to advance the network. The public money is to get to the hardest pockets, not to overbuild or to create exclusive networks.”

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 2692

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