Editorial: Towns free to go their own way with broadband

Published: 3/30/2017 3:43:41 PM

It doesn’t happen often enough, but this week common sense prevailed in state government.

The Baker administration, saying it heard the pleas of 40 rural towns in central and western Mass., has essentially stepped out of the way to allow those towns to figure the best, expeditious way to wire their towns for broadband internet.

And better, yet, the state is prepared to release its share of the cost, rather than require its Mass. Broadband Institute to micro manage how the state’s $20 million designated for local broadband design and engineering is spent. That insistence has created a bottleneck for several Franklin County towns like Charlemont, Rowe and Colrain. They’ve been waiting for the better part of a decade for high-speed internet and increasingly are feeling left behind the 21st century economy and networked world without broadband.

Previously, the design and engineering money was to be spent directly by MBI 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, a process that seems to have bogged down when MBI insisted on calling all the shots and refused to relinquish its 30 percent of the costs except under its direction. MBI will continue providing design and engineering services to communities that prefer to work with the organization, but otherwise towns are free to go their way. Many seem to be leaning toward hiring a municipal internet outfit out of Westfield called Whip City Fiber that has offered to work with individual town or groups, to design, build and possibly operate their last mile networks.

“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.

Gov. Charlie Baker seemed to be channeling Wilson and other rural officials when he announced the policy shift, saying “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. We want broadband solutions to be flexible and responsive to local needs ...”

State officials said this week that a February meeting in Worthington with leaders of 17 unserved towns “was a watershed moment” that led to the change. We have to give state officials credit for listening and acting on the message, or as Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said, “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.”

Score one for the little towns.

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