Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito worked closely with the partners — down to the status of the wires and poles, say local officials.
BECKET, Mass. — Heather Anello has been trying to keep her businesses running on insufficient broadband for years.
"We have three dwellings there, the liquor store, the dispensary and the restaurant. We had very low bandwidth, we had three routers," she told the large gathering Tuesday that included Gov. Charlie Baker outside the "fiber hub" next to Town Hall. "We had to make very tough and difficult and costly decisions to provide competent wireless services, not only to our customers but just things as simple as credit card processing."
Customers would try to download documents and get stalled, go home to try again, and then be back asking if her internet was working. Credit card processing would freeze up midstream and the security system for her boutique marijuana dispensary would suck 90 percent of her bandwidth.
"I'm beyond ecstatic to report to you today that we have resolved all of those issues with the help of this administration and the utility companies and, of course, the Becket ad hoc Broadband Committee."
It took more than a decade, two governors, a "tenacious" lieutenant governor, and a collaboration between communities and utilities to finally bring the promise of "last mile" broadband to this small hilltown. The first customers went on line in June and the entire project is expected to be completed by fall of next year.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito were on hand along with Undersecretary of Community Development Ashley Stolba, state Sen. Adam Hinds, state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli (who had the governor lead a rendition of "Happy Birthday" to him), local officials and representatives from utilities and agencies involved in making the last mile a reality.
"It has literally been the agony and the ecstasy for so many people in Western Mass, especially in these 53 communities," said Baker. "The agony, of course, is trying to figure out how to make it work in a 21st-century life and economy without broadband and the ecstasy is when the thing actually, finally gets installed and gets turned on."
Each of the 53 total communities in the Baker administration's Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program now has or is in the process of installing broadband, or has a path forward to making it a reality, he said, adding jokingly that Becket's 4,000 new poles means there's two for every resident. "We're absolutely committed to finishing in closing the deal on this."
A statewide broadband initiative was first announced back in 2007 and then Gov. Deval Patrick was in Sandisfield in 2011 to tout the construction of the Mass Broadband fiber-optic network.
But the last mile — getting the small towns and their sparsely scattered residents hooked in — has taken far longer than anticipated. The Baker administration launched the Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program in 2017 and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito spearheaded the effort with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Westfield Gas & Electric [Whip City Fiber], the town and the ad hoc committee, along with other agencies and utilities. The state has so far invested $55 million in grants for last-mile efforts.
"We have 44 unserved communities [in Western and Central Mass], 24 that are up and operational for their communities, 16 partially served, and four that are under some sort of construction which brings us to the final end of the project," said Polito. "This is 116 road miles, about 1,800 residents ... 4,000 poles. Nothing easy about delivering on that infrastructure. ...
"It was shocking to me and to the governor, that there were communities that did not have access to this essential service."
She noted the community had "skin in the game" by investing $3.8 million, approved at the 2015 town meeting, to match the state's contribution.
"You literally worked hard to see all ends of it come together, I just want to just acknowledge that," she said.
Becket has received more than $3 million in state funding to build out its own network, Becket Broadband, operating as a municipal light plant. Sertex was hired to string the cables with Westfield G&E as the project manager. The Westfield utility received $10.2 million in Federal Communications Commission grants over the next decade to expand fiber-optic broadband in Western Mass, including in Becket.
Hinds said the broadband initiative is a significant source of economic development by allowing people to live and work in the Berkshires and Western Mass. It's bittersweet that it has taken 12-13 years to get to this point, he said, but it's also coming at a critical time as the Census is showing the county continuing to lose population.
"It's incredibly exciting that it's here, and it couldn't have come soon enough," he said. "I mean, just as we are getting to the point where the future of work involves a considerable amount of remote work and you've all seen it as people decided to stay in second homes and and maybe take up residence here, buying a lot of real estate, it's happening."
Hinds said he and the Berkshire delegation would be working with the state's congressional representation to relieve the town's debt through American Rescue Plan funds.
"It doesn't make sense that a small town in North Dakota that hasn't been working at this for years and years, doesn't have to pay for their broadband, but here in Massachusetts where folks have been working on it, we do take on the debt," he said.
Pignatelli recalled how he had been at the announcement in Becket back in 2008, and in Sandisfield in 2011 when the fiber started being hung. Now we're in the third decade of trying to get it done, he said, but entering the home stretch.
"This administration I think has really done a good job, and they put the pedal to the metal of last several years, and I've seen, I've seen lieutenant governor in action in those monthly utility meetings, trying to get poles established and get the poles ready," Pignatelli said. "She was tenacious. She was a bulldog and I mean as the greatest compliment I can give to someone who's tenacious about getting the job done."
Becket's Municipal Light Plant Manger Robert Gross, a town resident, says the it's been a 'long slog' to get to this point and highlighted the ad hoc committee for 'working tirelessly' to get broadband to Becket.
The Berkshires already offer natural beauty and have provided a haven during the pandemic, he said, which is attracting people to come and live here.
"I've challenged every Chamber of Commerce in Western Massachusetts. This is an opportunity. An opportunity for economic development," Pignatelli said. "Do we really need the bricks and mortar of a big city, paying $300 or $400 a square foot when you can live in Becket, and right out of your living room, access the outside world?"
Robert Gross of Becket, manager of Municipal Light Plant, said there were between 1,600 and 1,800 residents along 100 miles of road. About 60 percent of homes have so far signed up for the service and about 160 have been connected.
The town is sectioned off into 10 Fiber Service Areas and homes and businesses are connected as each one comes online. Gross described them as "independent communities" in terms of the infrastructure being built out.
"An FSA gets fully tested and when it's fully tested, it's turned over to the town, and then we can authorize the homes to be hooked up," he said. "We're at the point where we're connecting people from the first two FSAs, and we're building other ones. It's a gradual process."
The wait has been long but residents like Anello and Laurie Walker, who explained how difficult it had been for her family when the schools had gone to remote classes, said it was worth it in the end.
"These are the things that help my business grow and be successful," said Anello. "I'd personally like to thank this administration for pushing through this very difficult time and ask for your complete patience.
"If you don't already have fiber at your house, it is coming, it is worth the wait."
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The fifth- and eighth-grade students gathered around the dean of the Berkshire delegation to discuss important issues in the community, with more than a few requesting a picture and autograph afterward.
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