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‘Cable towns’ fear being out of last-mile Internet

BUCKLAND — Residents and officials from Buckland, Conway, Shelburne, Northfield, Huntington, Cheshire and Washington, got some assurance from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) director that they won’t be left behind in the state’s efforts to link every rural community to broadband Internet: But they also didn’t hear any plans for how this would be done.

“Cable towns” describes these rural municipalities, where at least half the residents can get high-speed Internet through Comcast — while the other half have no high-speed access and live in places considered too sparsely populated for the installation of fiber-optic cable to be profitable for commercial providers.

Between 40 and 50 people came to Town Hall to talk about why the “unserved” sections of their towns should share in the $40 million that Gov. Deval Patrick has set aside to bring broadband to all parts of the state.

“That $40 million is to fund the most unserved communities,” said MBI Director Judy Dumont. “A hearing on that bond bill may come up later this month. We’re working with the Legislature to get that passed. It’s the next step.”

But Dumont said $40 million can only cover part of the estimated $100 million to $150 million broadband buildout costs for western Massachusetts. “$40 million is a good start — but we need to get more funding,” said Dumont.

She said additional money could come from private funding sources or from other grants. She pointed out that Maine now has a telecommunications personal property tax to help pay for broadband infrastructure; but she added there are no plans for Massachusetts to follow that example.

“The last-mile project may have several steps to do to reach the end,” said Dumont.

And when it comes to covering the unserved parts of the cable towns, “There’s not necessarily just one bite of the apple,” she said. “There could be more bites.”

But State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, believed the broadband initiative, started in 2008, should be completed before Gov. Deval Patrick leaves office.

“We should all recognize that 18 months from now is the end of this administration,” he said. “And there is no guarantee that the next governor will share the same commitment for this project.”

Downing set two goals for the next 18 months:

1. Get the full funding in place for “last-mile” broadband coverage; and

2. “Secure a commitment for this project to move forward.”

“The Patrick administration and Legislature want to see absolutely everyone who doesn’t have access today have access,” Downing said. “I’m confident we’re going to come up with a solution that works for all communities.”

Downing urged residents from the unserved areas to attend public hearings held in Legislative sessions and provide testimony to help sway legislators from the more populated eastern Massachusetts cities and towns.

“While we know what ‘underserved’ means, it’s going to be very important for our colleagues to know what it means,” he said.

“We are committed to coming up with a solution to serve the unserved — no matter what community they’re in,” Downing said.

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, remarked that, from the Legislature’s perspective, “there are no constraints” on how the $40 million bond is spent, only on “how far it’s going to go.”

“We’re not going to be satisfied until every address in the state has access,” Kulik said.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-2nd Berkshire District, pointed out that he has no cable access or broadband access from his home in Dalton.

“Steve (Kulik) and I are the only legislators that live in unserved communities,” he said. “The house I live in doesn’t have access to broadband, cable or cell phone service.”

Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, suggested creating a “contiguous area” of the unserved sections of the cable towns on a map, so that money could apply to those unserved sections.

Buckland Selectmen’s Chairman Cheryl Dukes pointed out that the lack of broadband isn’t just about households but is an economic development issue for the town, as well as a health and emergency service issue.

“Also, we might be attracting more people to the region,” she said, if there was high-speed Internet.

Rob Riggan of Buckland said that bringing fiberoptics to a town today has an economic impact similar to “bringing a railroad to town in the 19th century. I think you have to look at these areas in terms of their economic unity,” he said.

If the “middle-mile” broadband initiative brings broadband to the Mohawk Trail Regional School, for instance, what happens when the students go home and turn on their computers? He asked if it would mean that some children will have the advantage of home access while others, in Buckland, for instance, would not.

Michael Duffy, of the Shelburne Cable Committee, pointed out that his town was the first to join WiredWest, and now “none of the $40 million is going to Buckland or Shelburne.”

He and Riggan pointed out that they spent nearly five years negotiating with Comcast to reduce the population threshold for installing cable to 15 households per mile, and is concerned that the work will get done.

“I’m the guy people call to say, ‘I can’t sell my house.’ They want to know when we are going to get broadband,” said Bob Armstrong, chairman of the Conway Broadband Committee.

He pointed out that unserved areas of Conway border some of the towns that have no cable, such as Ashfield.

By linking unserved parts of Conway with Ashfield, he told Dumont, “You would be doing Comcast a favor. They have denied service to these people for 30 years.”

Chris Saner of Huntington said the Comcast cable line ends 1.4 miles down the road from his house, and Comcast has told him he would have to pay $24,000 to have the line extended to the roadway in front of his home.

He said more and more services are now dependent on Internet access. Fiberoptics, he said, “is lobster and filet mignon. Cable is hamburger, but give us hamburger —we’re starving out here.”

Saner said he works in real estate, but prospective buyers are telling him: “don’t even show me anything where there’s no cable.”

A few people complained that the panel of five MBI representatives didn’t seem to have a plan for including the underserved sections of cable towns. They expressed concerns that their towns were being “thrown under the bus.”

“Our intention is not to throw anybody under the bus,” said Dumont. “That’s not the mission of MBI. We’re really just at the starting point of this whole process.”

Dumont said that MBI has been focussed on meeting its deadlines for the “middle-mile” project, which is to wire key municipal buildings, schools, hospitals, libraries, fire and police departments to high-speed Internet. She said 95 percent of that construction project is complete, that fiberoptics are being placed in 32,000 utility poles and that about 500 utility poles are left to be wired.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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