PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Finishing out the so-called "last mile" of broadband connectivity will take a flexible approach, giving towns an array of options to connect, according to Massachusetts Technology Collaborative implementation liaison Bill Ennen.
Ennen was appointed in June at the same time Peter Larkin, former Pittsfield state representative, was appointed to chair the board of the state's Massachusetts Broadband Initiative. The two are now heading the operations to bring high-speed internet into 44 unserved towns in Western Massachusetts. Ennen's role is to be the middle man between the MBI and individual towns.
Their approach, under the direction of Gov. Charlie Baker, is focused on working closely with towns to develop individual plans for build out and operation of the network.
"It is going to be a complete patchwork quilt of solutions," Ennen told the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's regional issues committee on Wednesday.
Baker had previously put a halt to MBI operations while the administration reviewed the program. On May 10, operations picked up again with new leadership and changes to the plans. Particularly, a change Ennen felt was important was ending the demand for a "ubiquitous fiber to the home network" and embracing a number of options. Ennen said that provision left little room for towns to craft other plans.
"Depending on the financial condition of each town the opportunities are greater or lesser," Ennen said.
The fiber expansion was too costly for many towns and the new program allows the development of extending cable service, using fiber optic, or wireless. Further, towns can opt to work alone in building out local networks or in consortium with others, with MBI officials providing help with a number of ownership models.
Ennen said the administration is now deploying staff to work with the towns, hopefully to eliminate a situation in which a community creates a plan the administration won't fund. MBI opened a 21-day readiness process during which engineers will work with each town.
"We opened up this window for people to submit and be part of this process," Ennen said. "That process is very unique to each town."
He said the governor wants to focus on affordability and sustainability in the system. The administration needs to be convinced that future taxpayers won't be unduly burdened by something they can't afford. The Department of Local Services will serve a role in the 21-day period with financial advisers and other staffing with deeper knowledge of the marketplace.
"We recognized that there was no practical way for a last-mile town, one of the 44 towns, to come forward and seek funding through some type of state program approach," Ennen said of the process.
Middlefield is seeking to pilot a wireless approach and funding wouldn't otherwise have been granted for that but now is while Mount Washington received a $230,000 grant to build a out a "fiber to home" network that will be owned, operated, and maintained by the town.
Mount Washington's project comes at a cost of $700,000, which voters had authorized to fund from both stabilization and borrowing. Mount Washington BRPC representative Eleanor Tillinghast said her town is lucky to have the ability to pay but others in the state don't have that luxury.
"There needs to be extra support for the communities that do not have the resources to essentially go it alone," she said.
The service will cost residents $120 a month and Tillinghast hopes that any town making the investment on its own isn't "undercut" by existing providers. For example, she said Verizon could enter the picture after the network is built out and sell a similar product for half the cost. Then the town would lose so many customers that the town would be forced to sell off the network at a fire-sale price — and Verizon could be waiting in the wings to purchase it at a lower cost.
The dynamic with private companies has been a cog in the wheels of expanding broadband. Ennen said there is virtually no way to force a company to build out a network the company doesn't want to build.
"It was a large waste of time to try to get them to do anything different," Ennen said.
Mount Washington Selectman Jim Lovejoy echoed the sentiment that the goal isn't to "find more customers for Verizon and Comcast." While the MBI's focus is to allow for many options, Lovejoy said the towns should be focused on building out a network that will support development.
"When somebody starts the conversation by saying we don't want to let the perfect interfere with us getting anything done. What happened to the idea of trying to get something that will really make a difference?" Lovejoy said.
He compared the build-out to that of roads or schools. He opposes setting up a situation in which a town is dependent on a private enterprise saying that instead the focus should be on a long-term solution.
"If you have the capacity in your local government to build a police station, you have the capacity to build a network or your citizens," Lovejoy said. "This kind of infrastructure is not that different from the roads that we build and other infrastructure we build to make our towns more popular for development."
Tillinghast agreed, saying rural towns overcame the same challenges building out the electrical network.
An additional obstacle is utility poles. Tillinghast said many poles are not up to code so the cost to upgrade ones that service additional utilities falls on the towns. And then what happens when a pole is damaged because of a storm? She hopes the state will lend support and use its leverage to help towns in sorting out those details.
The private companies do serve a role in expansion, however. With the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, three towns in the Berkshires — West Stockbridge, Hinsdale and Lanesborough — will see upgraded service. It won't be full fiber but it will be close. Ennen says expanding cable into a town like New Ashford could be an option to service unserved areas there.
Charter is required to upgrade all of its infrastructure to a level of as if the town had no service whatsoever, Ennen said. When it comes to negotiations with cable providers, Ennen said multiple towns can join together for negotiations.
Ennen rejects the notion, however, of waiting for private companies to fully build out the state. He said there seems to be no evidence to suggest Verizon will be expanding FIOS or even maintaining its current copper-wire infrastructure. He said there is still limited cell phone service in a number of areas in the state.
"Those cell towers should have been built out 10 years ago and it haven't been," he said. "We can't hope that the new technology will make its way out here."
Despite the challenges in what Ennen described as "moving a huge bureaucracy along," the expansion of broadband remains a top priority. Local representative on the MBI board Frederick Keator said, "the governor has made it a top priority. He is very well aware of the need and the importance of expanding this technology."
But, the governor also doesn't want to issue a blank check, he said.
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