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Buckland, Shelburne push for Internet access

SHELBURNE FALLS — Concerned about being left out of planning for the state’s efforts to connect homeowners and business to broadband Internet, Buckland and Shelburne selectmen are looking at their own options for their towns.

In Buckland, selectmen are talking about forming an “Internet Access Committee,” to explore ways to “build out” from existing Comcast cablevision lines to neighborhoods not served by that Internet-cable provider.

“We shouldn’t just sit around and wait for these groups to act on our behalf,” said Town Administrator Andrea Llamas, referring to the state and regionally supported Massachusetts Broadband Institute and Wired West collaborative. “Comcast is a visible place where we can start.”

One idea involved the state giving tax credits to subsidize cable expansion in underserved towns.

Selectmen’s Chairwoman Cheryl Dukes added, “We need to make something work for ourselves.”

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute was established by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008 to create public-private partnerships and to close Internet service gaps with $40 million in bonding authorization. This month, the MBI is to complete “middle mile” connecting the Internet to public buildings, but news that the governor’s bond may not be used to pay for broadband infrastructure in towns like Shelburne and Buckland has raised lots of questions.

The WiredWest initiative is a collaboration of western Massachusetts towns with little or no high-speed Internet, which banded together to bring “last mile” Internet to every home in member communities. But the money to do so isn’t in hand but expected to come at some point from state bonds and possible federal loans administered by MBI.

MBI says it will need from $110 million to $140 million to fully build broadband infrastructure in unserved parts of the state.

In a statement sent to The Recorder, MBI Director Judy Dumont said “While funding has been proposed in a state bond bill, the definitive scale and scope of any ‘Last Mile’ solution will not be known until funding sources are secured.”

In Buckland, Llamas said one approach to getting more cable service could be to look at “pockets of the community” that currently don’t have cable access because they have fewer than Comcast’s minimum requirement of 15 homes per mile. She said it’s possible some reconfigured areas might have enough residences to meet that minimum, if the overall population within a wider radius was taken into consideration.

Also, getting the Clesson Brook section wired should be taken up again with Comcast, she pointed out at a recent selectmen’s meeting, because the Clesson Brook Road community now has utility poles tall enough to accommodate Comcast’s cables.

About 15 years ago, Comcast agreed to wire the Clesson Brook area homes, but found that the utility poles were too short to be used.

But after Tropical Storm Irene washed out the roadway, new utility poles have been installed, which might meet Comcast’s needs.

“If there’s any silver lining to Irene, this could be it,” said Llamas.

Buckland Cable Advisory Committee Chairman Glen Cardinal said Comcast didn’t wire Clesson Brook because the replacement of utility poles would have added $150,000 to their overall costs.

Once construction on Clesson Brook Road is finished, and the road reopened, Cardinal said he hopes to bring a Comcast technician to the area to consider the feasibility of build-out for the roughly 50 homes in that area.

Another purpose of the cable advisory committee, said Llamas, might be to poll residents in unserved areas, to determine how many would subscribe to cable, if it were available.

Across the river, in the Shelburne town office, selectmen were also considering what steps to take in case a broadband solution through the MBI and WiredWest doesn’t materialize.

Selectmen’s Chairman Joseph Judd pointed to Leverett, as an example of a town with only 15 percent high-speed Internet access that voted to spend $3.6 million, through a Proposition 2 1∕2 debt exclusion, to pay for its own fiber-optic cable network.

And Judd hinted that his proposal for a new observation deck for the Glacial Potholes, as a townwide investment, may have to take a back seat to high-speed broadband.

“... At some point, we’re going to be faced with the prospect of what’s really important,” he said. “But it’s clear to me that high-speed (Internet) has a much broader need than an observation deck at the Potholes.”

Selectman John Payne said he saw three major capital expenses on the horizon for the town: the Potholes observation deck, a larger space for the Police Department and high-speed broadband.

Neither town is dismissing the efforts or potential help to come from WiredWest or MBI, but town officials see the lack of townwide high-speed Internet access as a hindrance for future economic growth, public safety (there is also cell-phone reception in only some parts of each town), education and maintaining the property values of the most rural homes. While Buckland and Shelburne residents living in Shelburne Falls have Internet access, roughly half the residents in the more rural parts of each town have no access.

When Michael Duffy first moved to Shelburne Center in 1982, he wanted cable TV access, he said. He’s still waiting for that and for high-speed Internet.

In 2005, as part of the town’s Cable Advisory Committee, Duffy started negotiating with Comcast to expand its service within the towns. The old contract with Buckland and Shelburne was due to expire in 2008, but the towns and the cable company had trouble agreeing about how much more infrastructure Comcast should provide.

“The old contract said Comcast would provide service where there were at least 30 homes per mile,”said Duffy. “We got it down to around 15. We fought hard to get it down to 10 homes per mile, but we just couldn’t get it,” he said.

Duffy says Shelburne has 278 unserved homes within a 30-mile radius — which would have meant most of the town would have been wired if Comcast agreed to the 10 homes per mile minimum.

Under the current agreement, he said, Comcast pays 100 percent for the infrastructure in areas with at least 15 homes per mile. For sections with 10 homes per mile, Comcast would pay two-thirds the infrastructure costs to expand service, but homeowners would have to pay the rest.

Duffy has raised the idea of a “telecommunication Iifrastructure” tax credit, which would cover part of a homeowner’s contribution to the cost of cable — much as people now get solar energy tax credits for home installations.

As a statewide tax credit, he said, “this would help fund the expansion of cable service throughout the state, not just in western Massachusetts.”

He said the credit would serve a public need and result in a shared approach to the problem, since the construction cost would be funded by a combination of corporate, government and individual contributions.”

Duffy says, if the average cable construction cost was $30,000 per mile, that would mean Shelburne’s total buildout cost would be about $900,000. If residents got a 60 percent tax credit for their contribution, Comcast would pay $585,000, the state tax credit would total $189,000 and the 278 homeowners would share the remaining $126,000 — paying about $453 each.

Duffy is chairman of the Shelburne Cable Advisory Committee and the town’s alternate representative to WiredWest. He said he hasn’t yet discussed this idea in an Advisory Committee meeting, but has shared it with selectmen.

“If a tax credit like this was implemented, it would be a tangible step toward ‘incentivizing’ the cable companies to expand their service areas,” he said.

Although broadband fiber optics can offer faster high-speed Internet than cable, both Cardinal and Duffy believe that working with Comcast to expand is the best option.

“I think cable is the answer for us,” said Duffy. “I really think Comcast is our best bet. We’re not going to get fiber, but (something) is better than nothing.”

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

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