Update: Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed the legislation into law Jan. 22, 2016.
Legislation awaiting Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s signature would allow the town of Mount Washington to build, own and operate its own broadband internet network and it comes amidst a regional effort to connect.
The home-rule petition filed by State Representative Smitty Pignatelli and Senator Ben Downing comes after a majority of town voters approved the effort this past July. Brian Tobin chairs Mount Washington’s Select Board.
“The town of Mount Washington is about as underserved as you can get in terms of broadband,” Tobin said. “Some people have long-distance wifi and others have satellite internet, but neither of those are satisfactory and it’s certainly not a 21st century solution to having reliable broadband.”
The town in the southwestern corner of Massachusetts has issued a request for proposals to build the network. Tobin expects a grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to pay for a third or quarter of the project’s cost, which is to be determined. The legislation allows Mount Washington to pursue fiber-optic internet without establishing a municipal light plant. Tobin says that would’ve added another department and more red tape for the town of about 140 people. Downing, who is the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, says he expects Governor Baker to sign the bill.
Private companies haven’t seen western Massachusetts’ scattered population across hilly terrain as profitable enough to build their own network so people use libraries and town halls for speedy internet access. The Broadband Institute is tasked with providing access to the underserved areas while an organization called Wired West is proposing a regional community-owned network. Wired West’s board is made up of roughly 40 member town delegates. To join Wired West communities must have a municipal light plant, according to the group’s website. Tobin says Mount Washington didn’t want to make an open-ended commitment to Wired West and wanted to be responsible for itself.
“We also believed, or at least I did, that we could easily be at the end of the line, because we are physically, in terms of getting it built out,” Tobin said. “We thought we could probably move faster on our own and so far I think about right about that.”
Tobin says the town is leaving the door open to partnering with neighboring towns, including Egremont, on the network. MBI and Wired West are negotiating Wired West’s operating agreement and financial model after MBI, which controls $40 million – about a third of the project cost – raised issue with the plans last month. The negotiations are expected to continue for a few more weeks, according to Wired West legal chair Steve Nelson. While MBI stated it would not authorize state funds for a project with core elements as proposed by Wired West, Senator Downing doesn’t believe the agency is withholding money.
“This is a matter of making sure that we’re on all the same page, we’ve crossed every ‘T’, dotted every ‘I’ and we’ve fully thought through the implications of all these decisions that we’re making,” Downing said. “I think the MBI is right to make sure that municipalities and Wired West together have thought through all of those. While there are other models in other parts of the country there certainly are not other telecomm models within this state that we can readily look to. I would rather ask a few more questions here at this stage than be back in the same position in several years not having connected all of these communities.”
Downing says he doesn’t think Mount Washington’s decision affects Wired West’s efforts. Last year the town of Otis withdrew from Wired West, instead deciding to seek its own solution by working directly with MBI. The town of Alford expects to have its own fiber network in service by late 2017 as it also works with MBI. 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.