State to release full broadband grants

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/28/2017 11:28:32 PM

In response to town pleas to release $20 million designated for local broadband design and engineering, the state is giving the money directly to unserved rural communities.

Towns may begin applying for their full design/construction allocations starting on Monday, April 3 — pending final approval Thursday from the executive committee of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s board of directors.

Previously, the design and engineering money held back and was to be spent directly by Mass. Broadband Institute on behalf of the towns. Under this new program, the separate grant for professional services (including design and engineering) will be combined with the construction money into one allocation — giving towns more flexibility to pursue engineering and construction solutions for their municipally owned networks.

This plan is intended to speed the development of broadband networks in roughly 40 unserved towns. It was approved by MBI’s board of directors Tuesday.

The program is modeled on the state’s MassWorks Infrastructure Program, a flexible, competitive grant program overseen by the Executive Office on Housing and Economic Development that pays for local infrastructure projects that unlock economic growth. Also, Housing and Economic Development and the MBI will continue helping towns that want to partner with private broadband providers or explore alternative technologies. And MBI will continue providing design and engineering services to communities that prefer to work with the organization.

“We’re very pleased with the new grant program,” said Marilyn Wilson, who chairs the Rowe Selectboard. “We’re very pleased that we will be getting our full allotment and that we will finally have full local authority over how our money is spent. We’ll be able to choose who we want to work with,” she said.

The state money is about a third of what will be needed to bring broadband to homes and businesses in western Mass. towns not served by commercial internet providers. Towns are covering the remaining costs.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the broadband gaps currently facing rural Massachusetts towns, so our administration is empowering communities to pursue the solutions that are most appropriate for them,” said Gov. Charlie Baker in a press release. “We want broadband solutions to be flexible and responsive to local needs, regardless of whether our local partners pursue municipally-owned networks, public-private partnerships or alternative technologies.”

“We will roll the grant program out on April 3,” said Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which will oversee the program. “Once these towns have their applications in, we’ll do a quick review of them.”

Applications will be processed on a rolling basis, with about two weeks for review by the Housing and Development office. Towns will need to identify milestone deadlines.

“We really want people to think the entire cycle through,” Kirk said. “They’ll have to go to their partner business, such as Westfield Gas & Electric, and work those out,” she said.

When asked if towns that have already started the process for construction grants will have to start over, Kirk said, “Hopefully, it’s going to be a cut-and-paste (matter). We don’t want reams and reams of paperwork. Most of these towns are well underway in articulating the details,” she said.

Kirk said February’s meeting in Worthington “was a watershed moment” in which representatives of 17 hilltowns told MBI officials what they wanted.

“They said: Give us all our money. Go faster. And we really want to work with Westfield Gas & Electric,” said Kirk.

Westfield Gas & Electric (WG&E) is a designated public utility that has built Westfield’s fiber optic network and is offering to build and, if desired, manage the networks for other communities.

Kirk said MBI has met with WG&E and that towns can work with the company if they want the utility to build their fiber optic networks. If the utility wanted to build and own the town networks, it would first have to revise its proposal for MBI approval.

The original $40 million internet technology bond bill included about $20 million for professional services, including design and engineering, and the rest for the network construction.

“Western and central Massachusetts communities have told us they want a more nimble and more responsive last mile program,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “We have taken their feedback to heart, and through this new grant program, we will accelerate the pace of progress on local last mile broadband challenges.”

Grant pay-outs will be block grants paid based on milestones: 100 percent of professional services allocation upon the signing of a grant contract; 60 percent of construction allocation upon submission of the licensee’s Pole Attachment Application; 35 percent of construction allocation upon signing of construction contract; and a 5 percent holdback until everything is done to the town’s satisfaction.


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