Rural towns get broadband funding

Several towns that have been dreaming of high-speed broadband since 2010 have just received state grants for broadband buildout. This month, the Baker-Polito Administration released about $11 million in broadband grants to 13 “unserved” western Massachusetts that are on track to build town-owned broadband networks. On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the release of $6.8 million for “Last Mile” connectivity for the following towns: Charlemont ($960,000); Colrain ($1.3 million); Cummington ($840,000); Heath ($820,000); New Salem ($750,000); Otis ($1.7 million); and Rowe ($440,000).

In an earlier round this month, $4.6 million in grants were awarded to: Ashfield ($1.4 million); Leyden ($680,000); Mount Washington ($222,000); Plainfield ($650,000); Shutesbury ($870,000); and Windsor ($830,000).

“The Last Mile program is a critical tool that is bringing many communities in western Massachusetts into the 21st century,” said Gov. Charlie Baker.

“High-speed internet access is integral to operating a business in today’s competitive global economy, where transactions often occur online,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash. “We are committed to working with every Last Mile town that wants to pursue high-speed internet access to create new opportunities.”

“It’s absolutely huge that this money is going to be released,” said Sheila Litchfield, who chairs both the Heath Broadband Committee and the Selectboard. “We’re hoping to sign a contract with the state in one of our next two (Selectboard) meetings,” she said. “That will release the first part of the money for design and engineering.”

That is the good news, although the town still faces many broadband challenges. “We need an accurate make-ready construction cost,” said Litchfield. She said town officials just received the results of its pole survey. About 47 percent of the utility poles in Heath either need replacing or repairs to carry fiber-optic cable.

“That makes our make-ready costs higher than what MBI (the Massachusetts Broadband Institute) originally calculated,” she said. “We’re trying to work with our legislators and work that out.”

Litchfield said the Broadband Committee is to make a recommendation about whether the town should build and own its own broadband network or have a private business build and own it. If the town builds its own network, the Selectboard hopes to sign a contract with the state in early June. If they opt to go with a private company, the Selectboard would not accept the state contract, but would go through a different procedure, through MBI.

She said the project would still be eligible for the same state grant, but the company would have all the decision-making, including the prices set for broadband services.

“If we own it, then we’d be able to participate in bids and in making sure we’re getting better prices,” she said.

“Our feeling all along is, if a resident wants (broadband), we want to make sure it’s available,” she said.

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