None of the qualifying proposals offered to connect Ashfield. The Crocker plan does, but at an additional cost to households. Already, Ashfield voters agreed to raise their taxes to provide the town’s share of network construction.
“The private provider responses are not realistic options for the state or the towns because they’re asking for three times the amount of money the state’s offering,” Kulp said. “There’s a tremendous frustration with the state right now from the Ashfield town officials.”
Calls are being heard in town, he said, for Ashfield to go ahead and build on its own, then seek to claw back promised money from the state. “Every year that we wait, the costs go up and the pain of not having broadband continues.”
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has studied the issue nationally from his base in Minnesota.
Governments can and should build their own broadband networks, he said.
“Getting high-quality internet is not the first time we’ve done this. We electrified the entire country and did it in a fiscally responsible manner,” he said.
Rather than start with a middle mile, Mitchell thinks Massachusetts should have fostered last-mile connections with alternative ways of connecting to distant trunk lines on the internet. And when it comes to local town networks, he believes people should think of what’s best locally.
“Do you want that money [for service] going to Philadelphia or staying in your community?” he asked.
Those local networks, according to another national expert, should employ fiber.
“If you’re going to spend to invest, why don’t you make it future-proof?” asked Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber-to-the-Home Council North America, a nonprofit that promotes use of fiber.
David Talbot, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said that only fiber, which moves data at the speed of light, is versatile enough to remain relevant as technological changes march along.
“If you are starting from scratch, you should use fiber in this day and age, unless there is a particularly difficult piece of geography and you reach it with wireless,” Talbot said.
Larkin of the MBI, on the other hand, stresses that the majority of people in the U.S. get their broadband connections through cable. “As you know, trying to find the perfect is a very expensive proposition. And we have found that the case here.”
Nonetheless, many towns plan to go the fiber route, with backing from the MBI.
“If a town wants to do a fiber to the home build, that’s probably the most expensive option,” said Kirk. “If the town is ready to take that on and can afford it, that’s the path that they’ll take.”
Dubendorf, the MBI board member, has sat listening to the same rationale. But he too sees the value of investing in fiber. “The aspirational element of fiber-to-the-home is undeniable.”
Looking ahead, some observers worry that the nature of the digital divide will eventually reverse. Communities that already had broadband, largely through cable and phone company service, will be saddled with slow internet connection speeds compared to fiber-optic service in some previously unserved communities.
They call increasing connectivity speeds everywhere vital to economic development.
“It flips the communities,” said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. His group’s board spelled out its concerns about broadband access and speeds in a letter to Baker in December.
“It leaves our communities with a second-class broadband system, which from a business standpoint makes no sense. The demand for speed is increasing exponentially,” Karns said.
Though it has been more than eight years since former Gov. Patrick made his pledges, the current team at the MBI stresses that since it reset its game plan, it is getting things done.
While that hasn’t solved the problem, a recent summary of progress notes significant gains, including grants to towns that are now creating networks and the nine-town cable expansion last summer outside of Berkshire County, plus the three-town agreement with Charter in Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge.
The MBI tweaked the last-mile plan last September to emphasize private-sector participation and is poised to shift it again this month by requiring that towns seeking to build their own networks handle their own requests for proposals — with advice from the MBI and an outside engineering firm.
Edmund Donnelly, the MBI’s deputy director, has witnessed the frustration in unserved towns firsthand. He says he feels the pain of not having broadband “very, very acutely.”
“I think some of the towns feel that we don’t feel this the same way that they do,” he said last week.
“I understand we’re not living it the same way that they are, but we very certainly feel the urgency that they do. We are doing the best we can as quickly as we can to get these towns online. We are very, very sensitive to the pressures they are under.”
Kirk, the deputy secretary of housing and urban development, said the unserved towns still hold power over their digital futures.
“The towns have to ultimately own and accept, from a decision-making standpoint, the path forward that they want. That’s very important to this initiative,” she said. “The important thing for the town is to get on a path. We have got to solidify the path forward for each and every town.
“To the extent that there is dissension in the town, or disagreement, the clock is ticking,” Kirk said. “We believe every citizen should have that ability to generate their own job, their own economic activity, their own livelihood through the tool that is part and parcel with today’s world.”
This series was reported by The Eagle Eye Team. You can reach Eagle Eye Team Investigations Editor Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214, firstname.lastname@example.org or @larryparnass on Twitter. You can reach investigative reporter Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247, email@example.com or @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter. Eagle Editor Kevin Moran also welcomes your feedback on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.