Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito toured Berkshire County Tuesday to discuss the ongoing efforts to close the broadband connectivity gap in parts of western Massachusetts.
Polito meet with municipal leaders, small business owners and residents in Washington, Becket and Tyringham to see how state dollars from the Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program have benefited communities.
“You are the ones who are closest to the people and know this community more than we do. So unleashing those dollars to you have helped you decide who to partner with for the remainder of the project,” Polito says.
Since 2015, Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has reduced the number of municipalities still in need from 53 to 8. A new Last Mile leadership team was selected in May 2017.
In July, Charter Communications received a state grant of $4.4 million to construct broadband networks in Egremont, Hancock, Peru, Princeton and Tyringham – which all entered in an agreement to receive Charter Spectrum services of up to 60 megabits per second.
Other towns were given funds to pursue municipally-built broadband networks: Becket received $2.1 million; Chesterfield $890,000; New Ashford, $280,000; Wendell, $730,000; and Washington $490,000.
“We will build a stronger commonwealth of Massachusetts when we build stronger communities,” Polito says.
Polito says communities in western Massachusetts lacking broadband internet share challenges. She says without high-speed internet, businesses, schools, and government services can fall short.
For instance, in Washington, officials say a reliable broadband service will be available in 18 months. Work has already begun, with crews surveying utility polls last week. But it’s slow going, according to Kent Lew.
Lew chairs the town’s finance committee and is a delegate to the community collaborative for broadband, WiredWest.
“To actually see concrete action happening and being able to start checking things off is very excited. But, of course, looking ahead at the next 18 months that’ll take to get there, there are a number of things that a project this large can make someone a little nervous – is the work that depends on the utilities. It’s the thing that we have the least ability to estimate, and the control is basically, all of the control is in their hands, so that is something that we are very concerned about,” Lew says.
Lew says the town doesn’t want to be taken advantage of by utility companies who own the licensing on the poles while it tries to run its own fiber-optic lines.
Steve Nelson, another delegate to WiredWest for Washington, says most residents are connected by digital subscriber lines at 2.5 megabits per second, or satellite.
“That’s not great,” Nelson says. “And it goes out sometimes in bad weather, it gets hung up. My satellite is not bad, so maybe I get 5 to 10 down. But we are talking about a minimum of 25 ‘megs’ down and as much as 1 ‘gig’, which is 1,000 – light speed compared to where we are.”
The average single-family home in Washington will pay about $3,000 over 20 years to the town to level the debt for the project.
The internet upgrade will cost the roughly 260 customers in Washington up to $75 a month. About half of those 260 customers run businesses or work remotely out of their home.
Joshua Greene, the publisher of Wine & Spirits Magazine, says that’s a daunting task as a Washington resident.
“I was just doing a project last night that would normally take me 15 minutes in my office in New York City, and it took me over an hour to do,” Greene says.
Polito says the rest of the communities in need will be on a determined path to broadband internet by the end of the year.