Rural communities see progress on broadband service

  • Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, left, interviews Hannah Cantor, a student who is dual-enrolled at Greenfield Community College and Frontier Regional School, via video chat Thursday from the Pelham Town Library on the impact of high-speed internet. STAFF/PHOTO/Bera DunaU

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    Lt. Gov Karyn Polito speaks at an event at the Pelham Town Library celebrating the completion of the Broadband Extension Program, which brought broadband to nine "partially served" communities. Bera Dunau—Bera Dunau

@BeraDunau
Published: 9/7/2018 9:53:29 AM

PELHAM — State and local officials were on hand Thursday to celebrate the completion of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s expansion of broadband service to nine underserved communities in western and central Massachusetts.

Among the visitors to the Pelham Town Library for the event was Lt. Gov Karyn Polito.

“Without the leadership of Karyn Polito and Gov. Baker we would not have made the progress that we’ve had,” said Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

Thanks to the program, at least 96 percent of the premises in the towns of Buckland, Chester, Conway, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne now have broadband internet access.

The initiative involved partnerships among the quasi-governmental MBI, local communities and cable provider Comcast. MBI awarded Comcast a $4 million grant in August 2016 to provide broadband to the nine communities, at no cost to them. While the original target for the number of premises served was 1,089, the final number was actually 1,303, exceeding the target by 214.

“For the same amount of money, and before time,” Polito said. “If that’s not a huge success story I don’t know what is.”

The nine towns were the “partially served” towns covered by the Broadband Extension Program, which was completed Thursday.

“Even though we served these communities for decades, there were still …. areas that we did not serve,” Michael Parker, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western New England Region, said.

There are also 44 unserved towns in the state’s Last Mile program, 42 of which have moved toward a completed broadband project.

Polito said it was shocking to her and Gov. Charlie Baker to learn to learn about the number of communities without high-speed internet access.

“This is a public health issue, it’s a public safety issue, it’s a public education issue, it’s an economic issue,” Polito said.

As part of the event, Polito also interviewed Hannah Cantor, a student who is dual-enrolled at Greenfield Community College and Frontier Regional School, via video chat about the benefits of high-speed internet.

She also praised the work of Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, on the broadband issue, saying that it’s a part of his legacy.

For his part Kulik, who is retiring at the end of his current term, praised the work of the Baker administration on the issue, saying that it wasn’t until it took office that things really began moving.

Specifically, he cited the staffing that was put in place as a result of the restart of the Last Mile program in 2016.

“The change in making this a priority was terrific,” he said.

Speaking with the Gazette, Polito said she convenes a summit every other month with the utilities so as to receive updates, and there’s also a weekly call between stakeholders.

“We will see this through,” she said.

Asked about Comcast having a monopoly on fiber in the towns in the program, Kulik said he is confident Comcast will continue to upgrade and invest in its technology.

Kulik’s hometown of Worthington is currently not served by broadband, but Worthington is working with Comcast to bring the service there.

“I know some people might say, ‘Oh I don’t want to be enslaved to a cable company for the rest of my life,’” said Kulik. “But, I look at it as one individual in an unserved community. I’m enslaved to Verizon, I’m enslaved to DIRECTV, today.”

He also noted that some communities have gone with a town-owned broadband solution.

Kevin Hart, a Broadband Committee member in the town of Montague, spoke about how when he moved from Holyoke to Montague 12 years ago, he didn’t factor in the lack of high-speed internet. Indeed, he said he even considered moving out of town because of it, due to not being able to work from home and having a 12-to-14-hour commute. The lack of internet, however, hindered his ability to sell.

“Fifty thousand miles a year for 12 years,” said Hart, speaking to the Gazette, in describing his commute.

Now, however, Hart works from home and has no intention of moving.

“It’s true quality of life for people,” Hart said, in his speech.

Hart also shared the story of an elderly neighbor whose relatives only stay two days when they visit him for Christmas, but said that they’d stay for a week if they could work from there while visiting.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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