MBI changes broadband course

  • BAKER

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/10/2016 10:34:49 PM

BOSTON — The state’s Last-Mile broadband “pause” is over, and Gov. Charlie Baker seems to have joined the chorus of western Massachusetts voices that want “Broadband now.”

“We want progress as quickly as possible,” said a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). “We understand there is no one-size-fits-all model for all towns. We will support projects that provide access to minimum speed requirements, demonstrate viable funding and financing plans, and achieve operating sustainability.”

About 10 western Massachusetts broadband leaders met with Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and local legislators at the Statehouse Tuesday morning to talk about going forward on building Last Mile broadband for towns without high-speed Internet access. The western Mass. town officials also met the new MBI team leaders who are to oversee the broadband buildout for 44 under- and unserved towns.

After meeting with Baker, the group got a PowerPoint presentation laying out plans for how the Last Mile will be developed. This comes many weeks after MBI held up funding for the WiredWest collective that until then was seen as the most likely way area unserved towns would get broadband.

“The new course marks a change for MBI, which up to now has been constrained by irreconcilable expectations for speed, coverage, affordability and a one-size fits all solution,” said the presentation. “We are prepared to MOVE FORWARD QUICKLY and to partner with towns to discuss options and plans.”

The goals included a strong, collaborative partnership between Baker, MBI, Internet providers and the towns, and rapid development and implementation of sustainable, reliable broadband expansion projects.

“I was very appreciative of the governor inviting us,” said Charlemont Selectboard member Toby Gould. “He was gracious and really wanted to listen to what we had to say. He took the time to listen to each of us, and he asked us questions.”

Those attending also met Special Adviser Peter Larkin and Last Mile implementation liaison Bill Ennen of Shelburne, who will be working with local town officials in western Massachusetts.

According to Gould, Baker has asked for quarterly progress reports from Larkin on the broadband projects.

“I’m very hopeful that there will be a new direction for MBI, with more contact with the community,” said Gould. Gould said he hoped the first effort will be for towns like Charlemont that have no high-speed Internet access.

Fiber, wireless, cable and hybrid systems were all on the table, along with several models and financing options. To receive state funding, broadband projects must meet these minimum requirements:

They must provide broadband speeds as defined by the Federal Communications Commission. They must demonstrate long-term operating sustainability without ongoing state subsidies. They must be affordable and cover at least 96 percent of residences.

The plans also have to be endorsed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)’s professional staff, with financing endorsed by the state Division of Local Services.

There is a preference for network operations to be managed by experienced professional partners when possible, and a preference that the MassBroadband 123 (Middle Mile) network be used when appropriate.

The administration is open to proposals that include expansion by private providers or independent town networks like Leverett’s, regional municipal networks like that proposed by Wired West, pilot projects and extension of cable systems.

Certain broadband expansion projects — including the Comcast Cable expansion for Buckland, Shelburne, Conway, Northfield and Montague — “are vetted and ready,” according to MBI. “We are evaluating potential for an accelerated path forward for some projects.”

Also, MBI has developed town profiles for all 44 unserved communities, which are being sent out to town officials. These profiles, according to the PowerPoint, describe construction costs for a fiber network and the likelihood of operating sustainability; premise/household counts, potential fiber-to-the-home construction costs and potential property tax increases from local borrowing and operations.

WiredWest

Because of a limited guest list, WiredWest spokesman Tim Newman wasn’t at the meeting, but was given an update by town broadband officials from WiredWest towns. He was optimistic about the governor’s involvement and the apparent steps to move forward.

“They’ve changed from months and months of silence to a plan that seems to offer a lot of options to the towns,” said Newman. “There’s a brand new leadership, and we’re enthusiastic about the fact that they’re ready to go, from the WiredWest perspective.”

Newman said Larkin has agreed to meet with WiredWest. “We don’t think our interests were well-represented by MBI” in the past, Newman remarked. “We hope it’s a blank page, and we can restart the whole thing. I think the state is acknowledging the towns want to make different choices. As soon as we have that meeting, it will be much clearer. For now, we’re really pleased that the administration is looking at this very closely.”

WiredWest, which formed as a municipal grassroots collaborative in 2009, has been largely credited with calling attention to the need for broadband in the rural, unserved hilltowns, and with motivating these towns to adopt the state “Municipal Lighting Plant” legislation that authorizes them to form a municipal telecommunications network. Since then, 7,000 residents have registered in advance for Internet service to be offered by WiredWest.

WiredWest seemed to be the only option for high-speed Broadband, but some of the smaller towns are now looking at wireless and hybrid options, while others want fiber-optic cable.




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