MBI defends Comcast as pick for Montague, Hardwick broadband

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/24/2016 10:40:52 PM

AMHERST — More than 60 residents and officials from Montague and Hardwick attended a public hearing Tuesday night held by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to defend its choice to have Comcast provide broadband to some unserved parts of each town rather than the towns’ preferred company.

MBI is responsible for distributing state money to expand broadband Internet service to unserved parts of rural towns. The hearing was held in a packed room at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, attended by representatives from MBI, Comcast, Matrix Design Group and Tilson, a consultant hired by MBI to evaluate proposals from each company.

Many residents and several town officials spoke in support of Matrix, which proposed to build and maintain a new fiber-optic network that would reach most of the remaining unserved homes in Montague.

MBI officials stated, however, that Matrix might not have the financial resources to sustain such a network and that its two-year build with the town of Leverett was not in accordance with contract requirements and the company was not timely in paying subcontractors, among other issues. Members of Montague and Hardwick’s broadband committees disagreed, saying they believe MBI is trying to force a Comcast solution on them that is not in the best interest of residents.

“The priority issue is to really ensure the grant money is being reliably spent to provide broadband to as many unserved residents of these communities as possible,” said MBI Deputy Director Ed Donnelly, adding the agency does not want to use taxpayer dollars to fund what it believes is the high-risk construction of a network that cannot sustain itself in the two towns.

Members of the towns’ broadband committees disagreed, citing a number of factors they believe show Matrix has the better proposal, including Comcast’s poor customer service, inferior technology, lack of interaction with representatives from the towns, redacted data about finances and other important data and its history of reneged contracts.

Tilson CEO Joshua Broder gave a presentation from MBI and Tilson during the meeting, saying Matrix’s proposal is not just to provide service to unserved residents of each town, but is instead for broader expansion of competing technology, which is not the purpose of the grant. He said the proposal is unsustainable unless the network successfully expands to hundreds of new residents, which Matrix has no experience doing.

Donnelly said during the meeting MBI believes Comcast already serves about 95 percent of Montague and 80 percent of Hardwick residents, and Comcast’s proposal would get the communities up to about 96 percent.

Robert Steinberg of the Montague Broadband Committee said that’s incorrect, as a house-to-house survey by the committee showed that only 92 percent of homes in Montague are served.

“The map that Comcast provided shows 65 homes that will be lit up — 139 houses unserved, 65 to be served. The real number of unserved houses is 206,” he said. “Comcast is clearly second best. It’s old technology and it’s a poor service record and a poor number of houses served. What we’d like to do is push for a reset, but if not we have to attack the proposal. It’s rife with bad data and you can’t use bad data to support a conclusion.”

He and others also pointed out what they believe is an apparent conflict of interest with MBI’s consultants — Wipro and Tilson — which evaluated each proposal.

Steinberg said Wipro has been a proponent of Comcast from the get-go, previously writing in The Recorder that Wipro received $400,000 from MBI last year and consulted with Comcast in drafting the funding legislation.

Chris Lynch of Matrix added that Tilson is a direct competitor of Matrix, as both do fiber engineering and design.

He added that Matrix is not problem-free. In Leverett, he said the results were good but the process flawed, but it could be solved with a performance bond and contract conditions.

“To disqualify Matrix looks to us like forcing the facts to fit a preordained conclusion,” he said.

Daniel Glanville, vice president of government affairs for Comcast’s western New England region, spoke at the meeting to affirm his commitment to working with western Massachusetts towns. He began facing MBI officials with his back to the audience, which resulted in several people demanding he face the public and prompted giggles from others.

Many residents also voiced concern that the copper cable Comcast proposed would be inferior to Matrix’s fiber.

Bob Mahler of Chestnut Hill Road in Montague pointed out that Greenfield is in the midst of a project to install a high-speed fiber-optic network throughout town, and questioned who would move to Montague when superior technology will soon be available in the neighboring town.

“By going with copper and not fiber, we are dooming Hardwick and Montague to second-class economic status,” he said.

Written comments from stakeholders may be sent to the Department of Telecommunications and Cable and MBI for review until Thursday at 5 p.m. They should reference “MBI Public Comments” and be sent to dtc.efiling@state.ma.us or to Sarah J. Clark, Secretary, Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable, 100 Washington St. Suite 820, Boston, MA 02118-6500.


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