Baker Administration Reviewing Western Mass. Broadband Options

Mar 17, 2016

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has decided to review all options for bringing high-speed internet access to underserved communities in western Massachusetts.

In a letter to community leaders this week regarding the Last Mile broadband initiative, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and Baker’s Office of Housing and Economic Development say the state will review technologies, cost projections, project design and delivery as well as governance and operating models. Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli says he has no problem with the Republican administration reviewing the program. But, as the representative of a number of underserved towns, he wonders why it took so long.

“I guess I would question what’s been going on since the new administration took office,” Pignatelli said. “It’s been over a year now. Towns in my district and throughout western Mass[achusetts] have gone to their town meetings a year ago this coming May to borrow up to $2 million to do this Last Mile. So I’m to the point now where I’m frustrated with studies and reviews. It’s time to put the money to work and start lighting up these communities.”

In December 2015, the MBI recommended towns not sign an operating agreement drafted by the organization Wired West, which plans to build and operate a regional fiber-optic network. The MBI controls $40 million for the project, about a third of the cost. Raising concerns about the business plan and towns being locked into the agreement, the MBI’s letter stated the agency would not authorize state funds for a project with the core elements as proposed. MBI’s former Director Eric Nakajima explained the decision in December.

“What we need to see for the state’s investment and participation in this project is a governance structure and sustainable operating plans that we think are going to demonstrate the qualities of a successful publicly responsive network,” said Nakajima.

Nakajima resigned in February and Elizabeth Copeland is now serving as interim director. The MBI and Wired West have been negotiating for the past few months. A statement on Wired West’s website says it welcomes the administration’s review, adding that the “pause” is not related to Wired West. In this month’s letter, MBI says it will proceed with cost-effective and sustainable projects. Democrat Ben Downing is the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy.

“Its work that has taken too long, but given that we want to make sure we get it 100 percent right,” Downing said. “So I appreciate the governor wanting to do that and maintaining the goal to getting the work done.”

The state and federal governments have allocated roughly $140 million for Massachusetts’ 1,200-mile fiber-optic network and this final leg to 45 underserved towns. That network brought service to community centers in more than 120 towns in early 2014. In October 2015, the Franklin County town of Leverett launched its own fiber-optic broadband network, becoming the first project of the so-called “Last Mile” built off of the “Middle Mile.” The entire state was supposed to be connected by 2011.

Meanwhile, other underserved communities are considering building, owning and operating their own broadband networks. In January, Governor Baker signed legislation allowing Mount Washington, home to about 140 people, to do just that.