Towns to Massachusetts Broadband Institute: Back regional broadband

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WORTHINGTON — Broadband advocates from Berkshire County and beyond pressed Thursday for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to free up funding, speed decision-making and support regional solutions to a problem they say impairs civic life.

Their sometimes sharply worded remarks took frequent aim at the MBI itself, saying the agency assigned the job of bringing broadband to dozens of unserved communities has too often changed its rules, frustrating dogged local efforts to end the digital dark ages.

"We've endured a constant state of flux," said Howard Bronstein of Plainfield.

Peter Larkin, the MBI board chairman and former Pittsfield lawmaker, joined the institute's deputy director, Edmund Donnelly, and field representative Bill Ennen at a head table.

For nearly two hours, they heard a litany of distress.

Among the toughest appraisals of the institute's performance came from David Kulp of Ashfield, who leads that Franklin County town's broadband committee.

"After nine years, it's time that MBI acknowledge its failure, drops its paternalistic approach and simply grant money to the towns to get the job done," Kulp said. "Let's call a spade a spade."

Other speakers echoed Kulp's call for the agency to release to towns the millions of dollars categorized as "professional services" funding — and let towns apply that design and engineering money directly to the networks they seek to build.

"We welcome the criticism because it's the only way it gets better," Larkin told The Eagle after the meeting.

He said the institute and its board are reconsidering how to use money allocated for professional services. They will decide whether towns will get access to that funding directly, or receive the value only in the form of in-kind services from the MBI.

One by one, representatives of more than 15 towns offered testimony on the session's stated topic: evaluating recent broadband service proposals from private-sector companies and a Westfield utility.

Hands down, most communities expressed interest in working with Westfield Gas & Electric's fiber-optic division, Whip City. The municipally owned utility is already teaming up with Otis and is poised to partner with a slew of Berkshire communities, comments at the meeting revealed.

REGIONAL APPEAL

Charley Rose of Worthington asked Larkin and the MBI to express support for the concept of regionalization of broadband networks.

"I am completely dumbfounded by the lack of interest in working with an organization that represents the majority of the towns that are affected," Rose said, referring to the MBI's distance from WiredWest.

WiredWest is a nonprofit that now proposes to help towns operate their eventual broadband networks. Previously, it sought to build and own those networks on a cooperative basis with member towns, by acting as a municipal light plant under state law.

Jeremy Dunn of Becket noted that it was helpful to learn last month that big private companies like Comcast and Charter are not very interested in serving small towns. By contrast, he praised the plan the MBI received from Westfield Gas & Electric in a recent request for proposals.

"There's nobody else who is going to come and rescue us," he said. "We need to make do with the options we have."

Dunn called on Larkin to free up money to towns and to stop opposing regionalization.

"It's pragmatic and it's what we do all the time anyway. We'd like you to recognize that and stop opposing us, please," Dunn said.

Many officials called for the MBI to make public money allocated available for their use, not sit on it.

"We want that design and engineering money," said Lynn B. DiTullio, a member of Colrain's last-mile committee. "We need it. All of it."

Susan Labrie, the town administrator in Chesterfield and Goshen's fire chief, said towns that lack broadband continue to see houses fail to find buyers. The community always expected to find strength through a partnership with its neighbors.

"We think still that regionalization is the way to go," Labrie said.

Two Cummington representatives, Maureen Tumenas and Brenda Arbib, said after the session that their town is waiting for the MBI to green light its plan so it can move on to a pole survey.

Both women said they backed calls by others at the forum. "Free up the money and allow us to regionalize," Tumenas said. "We need more young people and they can't live in our towns — or won't."

HEROIC VOLUNTEERS


When her town was called to the microphone, Jan Carr of Heath read a letter from Select Board Chairwoman Sheila Litchfield into the record. It noted that the lack of broadband has depressed property values, which in turn compromised the town's tax base.

Carr then shared her own thoughts, starting with admiration for volunteers who have spent thousands of hours "trying to make something happen that is a given in the rest of the state."

"It also seems like a form of colonization," she said, to murmurs of approval from the audience. "We deserve basic services."

Like others, Heath backs partnerships. "A regional agreement is the only thing that's going to work for us," Carr told Larkin.

Bob Handsaker, chairman of Charlemont's broadband committee, called for the MBI to release his town's allocated professional services dollars as an outright grant to the community, helping it close a yawning gap in financing its own network. Handsaker joined many other town representatives in praising Whip City Fiber's proposal.

"We think it could potentially be a game-changer for Charlemont," he said.

Until then, Handsaker said, the town remains in desperate need to provide broadband service so that high school students don't have to huddle in cars parked near public wifi.

He called the digital divide "a hole that's harder and harder to climb out of."

After the forum, he told The Eagle that he sensed a shift in the stalemate. "Hopefully this time we're really moving forward."

The testimony included calls for the MBI to redefine its role.

Kimberly Longey, a long-time Plainfield broadband advocate and WiredWest volunteer, said the MBI should advocate at the state and federal levels for fair broadband access for people of all income levels.

She urged both the MBI and its parent, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, to use their Feb. 27 and Feb. 28 board meetings to make decisions that move the last-mile projects forward.

"Time is of the essence," Longey said.

Bob Lichter, the Municipal Light Plant chairman for the town of Alford, spoke near the end of the forum. He observed that the message from towns is clear that regional cooperation is essential, whether from the start of networks or after they are built. "We are certainly open to the notion of being a regional network," Lichter said of Alford's network.

Steve Nelson of Washington, who has advocated for regionalization as a volunteer with WiredWest, seconded that idea.

"For a lot of towns like mine, it just doesn't work unless we're working together," Nelson said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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