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State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing talks broadband at the Berkshire Chamber's monthly breakfast.

Broadband Project Will Bring Connections, Jobs

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Downing said the project and network operator Axia could bring jobs to the region.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Tens of thousands of utility poles will be strung with fiber-optic wire this year in a long-anticipated effort that could leap the region years ahead in broadband infrastructure and install a high-tech hub of network services.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing said on Wednesday that the selection of Axia NGNetworks USA to operate the $71.6 million broadband system in Western Massachusetts and the private and public investments of "last-mile providers" will connect long underserved towns and spark job growth.

"I think that Axia's commitment to Western Massachusetts as the operator of the project is huge," said Downing after updating the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce on the project at the monthly Good News Business Salute breakfast. "You have communities falling over themselves to get Google to invest in high-speed broadband in their communities; we have a network operator here looking to do similar things in Massachusetts that has already had to make an investment in the area, is committed to the area, so I really believe that Western Massachusetts could have a better telecommunications infrastructure in the next five to 10 years than any part of this state."

Axia USA, a division of Axia NetMedia Corp. of Canada, operates networks in four nations, including the 9,300-mile-long Alberta SuperNet, which serves 3.5 million people in 429 communities. It was selected as the operator in February by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a division of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

The company will contract out the work of stringing wire on 35,000 utility poles along 1,338 miles of roads and highways. Downing said Axia is currently operating out of Boston but is being encouraged to move jobs west as the work progresses.

"I think they will be thinking to move some of their operations out here," he said. "They're very aware of our desire to have them out here and our hope is to get that done."

The effort to bring broadband service to rural communities — mostly in Western Massachusetts — began in 2008 with the creation of the broadband institute and its authority to invest $40 million in bonding to leverage public and private investment. Downing credited Gov. Deval Patrick and his House colleagues at the time, especially Daniel E. Bosley, and BerkshireConnect founding member Donald Dubendorf with helping push the legislation through.

"When I began my campaign, I didn't know a great deal about it," Downing, who is beginning his third term, told chamber members in the Crowne Plaza ballroom. But as he campaigned through the 48 towns in his district back in 2005, it was apparent that Internet access was a major concern.

The project's taken longer because of the great recession and the fall off of private investors. An influx of $45.5 million in matching grants through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunity Program was the catalyst to get it back on track.

The Pittsfield Democrat said he had asked for the chairmanship of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy to ensure the success of the project — especially since Axia needs access to 35,000 utility poles.

The network infrastructure will include some 1,400 community anchors such as police stations, schools, libraries and town halls, some of which should be wired before the year is out. Public cooperatives — such as WiredWest — or private enterprises will give home and business access to the main lines.

MassBroadband is committed to open access — a condition of the request for proposals on which Axia bid. That ensures a competitive market in contrast to the "toll road" operated by monopolies such as cable and phone, said the senator.

"I think in the long run that's another reason why Western Massachusetts can be in a better place," said Downing. "I think there's a great opportunity for job creation there and there's a huge opportunity to work with [Axia] to begin our infrastructure ... There will be much more competition and any number of providers." 

The breakfast was hosted by Cornerstone Telephone and Cornerstone Vice President of Business Development Christa Proper was emcee.

Receiving Good News Salutes were:

Edward Jones Investments, personal financial services, which has a branch on Eagle Street in Pittsfield operated by Jason Labelle. Founded in 1922 by Edward T. Jones, it now has more then 12,000 investment advisers and branches in every state. It plans to open nearly a dozen new offices in Berkshire County in the next few years.

Girls Inc. of the Berkshires and the Gladys Allen Brigham Community Center has reached the century mark. The center offers year-round programs for girls and young women promoting leadership, sports, career mentoring, substance abuse awareness, health and well-being and academics. Girls Inc., one of 92 affiliates, will host 175 representatives this year and provide more than $8,000 in scholarships.

Interim Healthcare of the Berkshires, operated by Lisa Evans and Suzanne Smith, offers customer-oriented home-care services to help the elderly, ailing and disabled remain in their homes. The Lenox branch of the nationwide provider is marking its first anniversary, serves the entire county and has added 20 jobs to area.

Martin Oliviera & Hamel PC, a merger of the law offices of Martin Oliveira and Thomas Hamel on Jan. 1, has six attorneys and provides a wide range of legal services, concentrating on commercial, small-business and individual clients. The firm was established more than 50 years ago.

The Pittsfield 250 celebration committee for marking the city's establishment on April 26, 1761. The volunteer committee has planned a year's worth of events to mark the bicenquinquagenary.
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