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A little broadband can hurt

SHELBURNE FALLS — A $40 million state broadband fund that is supposed to help bring high-speed Internet to the “last mile” of rural towns won’t be coursing through Buckland, Shelburne or a handful of other hilltowns with partial Internet service through their telephone and cable TV providers.

Because these two towns have limited cable access through Comcast — mostly in the Shelburne Falls area — the rural sections with no service may not get a share of that $40 million “pie,” because the money is to be used for the 36 out of 42 Wired West collective member towns that have no service at all, according to Jim Drawe, Wired West’s finance committee chairman.

Drawe stunned Shelburne selectmen with this news recently, and Reva Reck, Wired West’s vice chairman and outreach coordinator, spoke to selectmen in both Shelburne and Buckland selectmen over the past week to explain what strategy will be used to “incentivize” Comcast to expand service to the unserved parts of the towns.

The six Wired West member towns with broadband access through Comcast are Buckland, Conway, Northfield and Shelburne, in Franklin County, and Chester and Huntington in Hampshire County.

Besides losing out on the possibility of using some of that $40 million bond for fiber-optic infrastructure, any U.S. Department of Agriculture loans that Wired West might potentially borrow for the final-mile build-out cannot include areas that already have two “broadband providers,” such as a phone company and cable service.

When the Shelburne selectmen heard this, they asked what other options the town would have if Comcast won’t invest or provide the last mile.

Matrix Design Group account manager Chris Lynch explained that the state may be able to entice providers like Comcast or Verizon by offering incentives that cover 70 percent of the build-out costs. But if that does not occur, Shelburne could look for funding through a bond market borrowing, private funding, bank loans, or grants. Lynch offered to spend a day looking at the town’s infrastructure and provide a free basic feasibility study, which would include cost of build-out.

Last week, Reck told Shelburne selectmen that the decision not to use any grant money for the “cable towns” came from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a quasi-governmental state agency that has been creating most of the high-speed backbone in the western part of the state — and not from Wired West, a collaborate of towns seeking ways to get broadband all the way into people’s homes and businesses in the western counties.

“MBI is well aware that the towns of Buckland and Shelburne are not happy with it,” Reck said. According to the grant criteria, Wired West cannot include in its footprint, “any area that had two or more broadband providers — and they included DSL (digital subscriber telephone line) as a broadband provider, as well as cable companies,” she explained.

“The degree of our control shifted, because the money is not going to us, but to MBI. They agreed they do want to work with us,” she said. But Reck also pointed out that MBI is currently “very focused on the middle mile,” because of deadlines coming up for their work in mid-August. The “middle mile” plan involves providing fiber-optic infrastructure to crucial public places, such as municipal buildings, schools and hospitals.

To keep costs down, Reck said the MBI “doesn’t want overbuilding in cable towns.”

“We did not come up with the strategy of negotiating with Comcast,” she remarked. “Incentivizing Comcast to build out to the entire town is now Plan A. At this point, what’s Plan B? That’s something we want to be part of advocating for.”

She noted that towns that already have partial broadband coverage yielded a much lower response rate to polling to see how many people would sign up for broadband service — in contrast to towns with no high-speed service at all. For instance, Shelburne’s response rate was about 17 percent, compared to about 50 percent in towns with no access.

“If you want to be part of Plan B, we have to get those (polling) numbers up,” she said. “I know it’s not good news. I feel, to some extent, we are the messenger of bad news.”

Buckland’s response rate was about 20 percent, Reck told Buckland’s selectmen Tuesday night.

In both towns, about half the residents have no high-speed access.

In Buckland, Selectman Kevin Fox wanted to know why the board wasn’t told of this policy change sooner, given that Wired West officials have known about this for a few months.

“We need to be aggressive, and we’re already months behind,” he remarked.

Buckland Selectman Cheryl Dukes said it might make more sense for the six cable towns to work together, to leverage more broadband access. Or, she said, maybe the cable towns should follow Leverett’s lead in getting wired.

In Shelburne, Selectman Joseph Judd expressed dismay that there is no other plan, other than to renegotiate with Comcast. Recently, both towns’ cable committees spent at least five years negotiating with Comcast to increase service in the sparsely populated rural areas where there are at least 15 households per mile.

“There is no Plan B?” asked Judd. “I sometimes feel like we’re butting our heads against a wall. When are we going to be in a position to find ourselves in a better position than where we’ve been?”

Selectman Robert Manners asked: “At what point do we say we’re going to start looking for other solutions — maybe cooperative hot-spots or wi-fi. We’ve spent five years on this, at a minimum.”

Daniel Lieberman, the town’s representative to Wire West, said he thought the best step is to continue on with Wired West. “We have a voice in this matter,” he said. “It would be appropriate for this (Board of Selectmen) to talk to local legislators.”

“So running glass (fiber cable) up to Rowe and Hawley is more remunerative than running glass to Bardwells Ferry?” asked Selectman John Payne, who lives on Bardwells Ferry Road.

“With all due respect, I really think we need to look at other options,” said Judd.

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

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