Eagle Eye Team Report: Broadband expansion languishes in Berkshires- Page 3

 

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CHANGING COURSE

Across Berkshire County today, Ennen is working with town officials who are shopping a new set of choices on broadband provided by the MBI.

Last spring, the institute adjusted its course dramatically as it brought Larkin and Ennen on board. That came after Baker called for a pause on the institute’s work, following its clash with WiredWest over the cooperative’s business model.

Kirk and Larkin declined to assign fault to earlier MBI leaders, with Kirk saying, “We can’t speak to a timeframe prior to the last two years. I haven’t spent a lot of time researching so far back in history.”

The governor has affirmed the MBI’s conclusion that towns must own their own broadband networks. The WiredWest plan called for them to have fractional ownership through a regional agreement.

What had been a goal of providing fiber-optic connectivity to all residences in unserved communities was scaled back last spring to a pledge to connect 96 percent of homes, and not only by fiber, which provides the fastest connection speeds.

The MBI instead rolled out a new menu of choices designed to be more affordable for towns. At the same time, the institute opened the door wide to private-sector involvement by allocating $22 million in grants that individual towns can use as they wish to help attract providers.

The money for the towns is drawn from the state’s original $40 million commitment to extending broadband. At the same time, MBI reserved $18 million of the original funding to pay for technical service that it will provide to towns, including work to design broadband systems.

It’s no longer clear that $18 million will be enough. When the MBI requested proposals last fall from companies bidding to take on the design and engineering work, the responses were “prohibitively expensive,” Larkin said.

That funding gap is playing a role in the agency’s shift, now underway, to have the towns themselves enter into contracts for network construction. Even so, the MBI plans to provide detailed blueprints to each town that seeks to build an independent network.

While Larkin says the change will not force significant delays, his January letter to town officials apologized to those far enough along in the process to be affected.

Dubendorf, the Williamstown lawyer and MBI board member, said funding limits have always been a stumbling block. And on this, the relative affluence of towns will be a factor — and one that troubles him.

“There are class elements to this and I don’t like the notion of second-class citizenship. There is a moral quotient to the investment of public money that we ignore to our peril,” Dubendorf said. “There will be some towns that have no options other than more public capital, and I don’t mean locally sourced.”

But two area lawmakers, state Reps. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, say it’s unlikely that the Legislature would be willing to provide more money for the last-mile effort.

Still, Kulik said he would push for more money if the governor agreed to support it, since it is the governor’s office that must release such funding.

Kulik said he agrees with some town officials calling on the MBI to free up more of the design money for use in the network construction projects.

“The allocation of the $40 million … should go to the towns in full, that they should be able to use any way they wish to,” Kulik said of the broadband funding. He is among a group of legislators that has been holding almost weekly conference calls with MBI staff to keep up to date on broadband projects.

Pignatelli said towns working to obtain broadband must keep other capital needs in mind. “You don’t want to handicap your town financially,” he said. “Each town has a tough decision to make. It comes down to what [they can] afford.”

On the whole, he feels the MBI is going a good job.

BEHIND THE DELAYS

Aside from money and vexing geography, other factors are cited as causing delays. Some point to the complexity of the middle-mile network, known officially as MB123.

Dunlavy, the MBI board member who has worked on broadband issues for 20 years, said the middle mile project became “all-consuming” for the state agency, to the detriment of planning for the last-mile side.

“There should have been more thinking about that,” she said. “There really wasn’t a good plan in place. I feel that MBI lost its way on that.”

Dunlavy also notes the time lost fighting over the merits of the WiredWest proposal.

“We were on the path to do the right thing,” Dunlavy said of the WiredWest regional network concept, “but the right thing was so difficult. It became this circular morass of how do we get through this? It was an important year, but a very circular year.”

Some who’ve pondered the slow advance of broadband also speak of a cultural difference between paid officials in eastern Massachusetts and the volunteers who comprise town governments in rural areas.

Kimberly Longey, an elected official in Plainfield and co-founder of WiredWest, notes that two sides came together to solve the broadband problem.

On one side: bureaucrats in Boston who tend to use a top-down approach to decision-making and rely on paid consultants.

And on the other: grassroots volunteers with day jobs who embrace bootstraps solutions, understand the will of their communities and believe in self-determination.

“It really comes down to culture and personality,” she said. “I think it was a mismatch from the beginning.”

Longey, who is chief operating officer of Free Press, a nonprofit in Northampton and Washington, D.C., worked for weeks in late 2015 and early 2016 to repair the divide between the MBI and WiredWest, but was unsuccessful.

“I truly believe the Boston folks want to solve the problem, but I think the cogs in the middle clog up the works,” she said.

ROLE OF PRIVATE SECTOR

Kirk, the deputy secretary of housing and economic development, said the MBI took a key step this fall when it issued a request for proposals from well-established private companies to come into unserved towns.

Kirk said the idea was to see who’s out there in the private sector, ready and willing to be part of the solution, with a little financial encouragement through public-sector grants.

The MBI set a threshold of $100 million in yearly revenues and five years of experience.

That meant only two would qualify, Charter and Comcast, but a handful of other proposals is now being studied. Larkin said the MBI is negotiating with the private firms to see what’s possible.

But it’s already clear that cost remains a problem. One of the proposals, from Crocker Communications, asks households to kick in up to $3,000 to be connected and proposes use of a micro-loan program. Responses from one of the big cable players also asked for significant additional public underwriting.

Reach is a problem as well. The Charter and Comcast proposals only ID’d a handful of towns, with some overlap.

Kulik, the Worthington Democrat, said the effort revealed that the private sector is not going to rescue the broadband drive.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, says he met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in Heath during the official pause in the project and heard her outline hopes for the private sector.

“I told her I didn’t think this would be a fruitful endeavor,” said Mark, who believes he is the only Massachusetts lawmaker to live in a place that lacks both broadband and cell service. “I thought it was the wrong approach to take.”

“There became a focus on doing it more cheaply and with a private-sector solution,” Mark said. He prefers a regional solution that keeps ownership in public hands.

David Kulp, a member of the broadband committee in the Franklin County town of Ashfield, has read the proposals from private companies and doesn’t see a realistic solution for his community, with its 81 miles of roads.

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