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Broadband link to towns complete

‘Last mile’ work of bringing high-speed Internet access to homes still ahead

WESTBOROUGH — The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has announced completion of a new, 1,200-mile fiber optic Broadband “backbone” for central and western Massachusetts. What’s next for the “last mile” rural towns of Franklin County?

Construction and testing of this long-awaited project, to bring high-speed Internet access to public safety facilities, town halls, schools and hospitals in rural areas of central and western Massachusetts, is finished. Construction and testing the network is done, bringing high-speed Internet access to almost 1,200 key facilities in 120 western and central Massachusetts communities and towns.

The completion of this project also means that wiring up “last mile” rural towns —with little or no high-speed Internet — may come next.

“It’s a very important step,” says state Rep. Stephen Kulik, whose hometown of Worthington, and “a huge chunk” of the district he represents are among the communities without broadband. He said the middle-mile completion “really makes it possible to have an aggressive last-mile program, because it provides an important link to infrastructure.”

Kulik said the new fiber optic infrastructure will become “the interstate highway of the Internet,” because “it’s connected to every community.” Kulik said the new infrastructure means “we can begin planning and the completion of last-mile systems.”

“We are pretty well positioned for funding,” he added. Gov. Deval Patrick had requested $40 million for construction of broadband infrastructure in rural towns. In the House of Representatives, Kulik requested an additional $10 million — $5 million to reach unserved towns beyond those served by the WiredWest initiative and $5 million for “underserved” hilltowns like Buckland, Shelburne, Conway and Northfield, where about half the residents have cable access and the rest have no high-speed Internet access. He said the additional funding was approved in the House and is now going through the Senate.

Wired West spokeswoman Monica Webb said the group has been working closely with MBI for nearly two years on how to get high-speed Internet to rural towns.

“In terms of when we’re going to have that final plan, I can’t say,” she said. “I can only say that I’m hoping, that in the next couple of months, we’ll have a plan.”

Linda Dunlavy, an MBI board member and the executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, called this completion “a huge accomplishment. A 1,200-mile fiber optic network throughout western and central Massachusetts offers the region world-class bandwidth that far exceeds our expectations from when we started work over a decade ago,” she said in an MBI news release. “I look forward to continuing efforts to expand broadband connectivity for residents and businesses across the region.”

“With this broadband backbone now complete, our hope is that industry will step up and build off of this infrastructure, to further enhance and expand broadband availability in the region,” said MBI Deputy Director Ben Dobbs. “The MBI and our partners are ready to support these efforts.”

According to MBI, all parts of the new network have been turned over to network operator, Axia NGNetworks USA. MBI expects hundreds of facilities in rural towns to come online over the next several months.

The project was financed by state money and a $45 million federal stimulus grant.

The move is designed to boost the economy, education and public safety.

State officials say completing the so-called backbone network will make it more economically viable for the private sector to come in and connect homes and businesses.

Patrick says reliable and affordable high-speed Internet is necessary to compete in the global economy.

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