Eagle Eye Team Report: Broadband expansion languishes in Berkshires- Page 2

 

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HANDS-ON HELP

Today, a flurry of MBI activity since spring is pushing to close most of the divide in the next several years — under leadership installed by Baker and led in part by former Pittsfield state Rep. Peter Larkin, a special adviser to the state secretary of housing and economic development.

Larkin’s team is racing to show enough progress to blunt the criticism that has dogged the MBI effort for years.

“We’re making progress, albeit frustratingly slow,” Larkin told The Eagle last week.

“People of good will are trying to help each other get to the goal line, which is broadband connectivity. And I know how frustrating that is. This administration has taken this issue on, we’re making progress.”

Already, private cable companies lured in by government subsidies are wiring towns like Hinsdale, West Stockbridge and Lanesborough. Here, Charter Communications received a grant of $1.6 million to provide service.

Paul Sieloff, Lanesborough’s town manager, marvels at the change from Charter.

“Now, finally, they’ve decided to install broadband. … It changes people’s lives,” Sieloff said.

Communities up and down Berkshire County are getting hands-on help from an MBI representative, Bill Ennen, as the Republican administration in Boston emphasizes private-sector solutions and puts around $20 million on the table to entice participation by private companies like Charter and Comcast.

“We have a lot of resources dedicated to this, a lot of eyes on it,” said Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of housing and economic development and a former Gloucester mayor who now ultimately oversees the project on behalf of the governor. “It’s not going to be overlooked in any way, shape or form.”

Utility trucks have been out inspecting poles. Towns are reaching for private partners in a small flood of proposals.

While actual broadband service remains years away for many, residents of some unserved towns have reason to hope the final steps of “last mile” broadband connections are being taken.

“They’re on the ground every day hooking people up,” Mark Webber, West Stockbridge’s town administrator, said late last year. “They are actively connecting customers as we speak. We’ve come a long way from ‘never’ to ‘18 months.’”

For other towns, though, it’s still a waiting game.

“Two years ago, we were told that it would be two years before we had service,” said Douglas Mcnally, the Windsor Select Board member who leads his town’s broadband committee. “We want to just get started. It’s a mess.”

Mcnally, an educational consultant, knows of a local business owner who sold out and moved to a town with broadband. When Mcnally must send a large data file, he drives down the mountain to the Dalton Library or to a business in Pittsfield with Wi-Fi.

In coming months, officials in towns that have been waiting for broadband will continue to move through the MBI’s revamped planning system.

Already, at least 10 have finished a “readiness” process that dug into or finished the task of surveying utility poles that are the backbone of a last-mile project. Others are discussing offers to sign on as customers of a private network.

Rather than the large regional network earlier proposed by WiredWest, the new landscape suggests a patchwork of solutions.

MONEY SPENT

Nearly $90 million in state and federal funding was spent for fiber-optic lines to be strung through the region, laying down the “middle mile” that brought high-speed connectivity to public buildings like libraries, schools and town halls.

From there, the “last mile” to reach homes and businesses — which unfortunately was far more than a mile — was supposed to be almost an afterthought.

Instead, the “last mile” financial math remained a show-stopper.

The $40 million the state allocated to the problem fell far short of the estimated $110 million it would take to get fiber-optic cable to all homes in unserved communities.

That left the effort $70 million short in the 44 communities the MBI sought to help. That expense proved fatal, said Larkin.

“Asking some of these towns to come up with the two-thirds of a commitment toward the project was a real, tall challenge. And in fact in some cases impossible,” said Larkin, who also chairs the board of the MBI. The institute is part of the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

“So let’s reset in reality. And that’s where we are now,” Larkin said. “I call it an ‘eyes wide open’ process.”

While presented as pragmatic by today’s MBI leaders, the shift confounded leaders of WiredWest, the nonprofit cooperative that emerged in 2011 to lead a regional approach to bringing the state’s rural communities into the internet age.

“They keep changing the game plan,” said Bob Labrie of Goshen, a board member of WiredWest. That organization was formed to build, own and operate a fiber-optic network serving 100 percent of addresses in member communities.

WiredWest’s efforts received a body blow Dec. 1, 2015, when the MBI, led at that time by Eric Nakajima of Amherst, advised municipal leaders not to accept an arrangement with WiredWest that would have given the cooperative ownership of the asset — the network — and left towns holding debt on construction funding.

“We all scratch our heads asking why they changed. What caused them to change this time?” said Labrie. “The vision that WiredWest had in 2011 is very different than the paths that we’re taking now. I am of the opinion that the state should be helping its residents to provide them with what they want, and right now I don’t feel like the state is working that way with us.”

Labrie and other WiredWest backers say a regional approach would have worked best, since it could have connected towns across a wider geographic area and built in system strength, particularly in the ability to cross town lines to reach “edge” properties that might otherwise be orphaned.

But Kirk and Larkin maintain that towns that could not afford significant investments in a broadband network were unlikely to see progress. They also argue that MBI’s strategic shift last spring, and the hiring of Ennen as MBI’s “last-mile implementation liaison,” is providing on-the-ground support to towns that enables volunteer town leaders to understand the stakes and make decisions.

“The biggest change is the on-the-ground support in Berkshire County and in western Mass. through the community liaison,” Kirk said. “To really help them understand how challenging this is, and guide them through a series of choices that they’re working with us to come to some conclusions on.”

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