Broadband providers have until Sunday to respond to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute about proposals to connect the remaining Last Mile towns in the western end of the state with high-speed internet.
Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito promised local leaders in western Massachusetts that the remaining Last Mile towns without high-speed internet service would be on a path to broadband by the end of the year. Since 2015, Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has reduced the number of municipalities still in need from 53 to about a dozen.
“We will build a stronger commonwealth of Massachusetts when we build stronger communities,” Polito says.
Communities in western Massachusetts that lack broadband internet say they struggle to attract businesses, strengthen schools, and improve government services.
In its latest move, the Baker administration announced Friday a $1 million Last Mile Infrastructure grant to Blandford to design, engineer and construct a municipally-owned broadband network by partnering with Westfield Gas and Electric.
MBI Board Chair Peter Larkin says the Baker administration has made good on its promises through the institute’s Flexible Grant Program.
“We have had offers from other broadband providers made and are under review right now for the last eight to 12 towns,” Larkin says.
Last week, the MBI mailed letters to private broadband providers to finalize the criteria and conditions towns need to be aware of before deciding on a proposal. Sunday is the deadline for that feedback.
“Well it’s an opportunity for any provider to come forward with a solution designed for particular towns that are still available,” Larkin says.
Savoy, Blandford, Charlemont, Florida, Hawley, Middlefield, Monroe, and Worthington were among the western Massachusetts towns notified of the steps going forward.
“Many of the towns have gone forward where they will own the network,” Larkin says. “This a situation where they are going to entertain proposals from private providers that would just use the state dollars that are available and not commit the towns to spending anymore. How far that will take them has yet to be determined by each town and each proposal.”
The Flexible Grant Program provides funding to providers willing to design, build, own, operate and maintain a communications network that meets or exceeds the federal benchmark of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mpbs upload speeds.
The letter was also sent to other Last Mile towns New Marlborough and Tolland.
“They are the most challenged,” Larkin says. “They are challenged by distance and number of subscribers that might be available in those towns. They’re also challenge by, you know, whether the providers themselves are able to deliver the broadband they would propose. With that being said, we are trying to make broadband solution work for each town.”
In November, an agreement with Frontier Communications between New Marlborough and Tolland and Sandisfield stalled when New Marlborough rejected it. The towns were going to pay Frontier to build, own and operate their own fiber-optic networks – $15.5 million over 15 years as part of a basic operating subsidy. That would be an additional $35 monthly basic service cost for residents.
Sandisfield Town Administrator Fred Ventresco says the town and Tolland might still salvage a deal with Frontier.
“I can’t really say too much at this point, but still that avenue is open,” Ventresco says. “It’s one of those things that we are very eager for. There are areas that have it and areas that don’t and obviously we’d like to get more of our town online here and with better speeds as well. I mean even the places that have it sometimes the speeds aren’t, you know, what is the standard nowadays.”
All proposals will be outlined on the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s website for towns to consider before meetings with the state in January.