MBI adjusts last-mile strategy

State drops plan to handle broadband construction for towns

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Unserved towns with no private-sector broadband suitors must hire their own network builders, a state agency now says.

It's a change some municipal leaders call abrupt and burdensome, but others see as a welcome path to independence.

Officials with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute say the shift was spurred by requests from towns themselves and by tight resources. They say the change won't pose significant delays and stress they continue to work closely with towns still lacking fast internet.

"We went from a one-size-fits-all (solution) that was just untenable and wasn't doable," Peter Larkin, chairman of MBI and a special adviser to the state Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development, said when asked about the change.

The agency took on the challenge in 2009 of bringing broadband service to 45 towns in central and western Massachusetts, including 19 in Berkshire County.

"It's an eyes-wide-open exercise. Each party understands the roles and responsibilities," Larkin said Thursday in an interview with The Eagle.

But others see it differently.

"MBI is doing a U-turn," said David Kulp, who leads the broadband committee in the Franklin County town of Ashfield. He said his community was expecting MBI to take it all the way through a network building project, including finding a company to string fiber on utility poles and construct an independent, town-owned network.

"It was made clear that they now plan to do just the opposite," Kulp said. "The town would be responsible for doing the project."

"There is tremendous frustration because they are changing the rules again," he said. "MBI has reneged on their offer to manage the design and build process."

COURSE CORRECTION

Larkin, the former state representative named by Gov. Charlie Baker last spring to lead the broadband effort, disputes that assessment, calling the change a course correction.

But he acknowledged that higher-than-expected costs for outside design and engineering services in part compelled the change.

"Yes, we are adapting as we see opportunities to bring this process forward. I'm not going to dispute that," he said.

Last fall, in an effort to obtain help with network project designs, MBI issued a request for proposals from private companies. Three came in, all over budget.

"When we put the design and engineering RFP on the street, it was prohibitively expensive. It made us pause and stop to think through the next steps," Larkin said. "It's not unlike the things that we're faced with as we're bringing this project forward."

He added, "People are getting a piecemeal impression. We don't think it's going to be a noticeable delay."

The shift was revealed at a meeting in Worthington last week at which representatives of the offices of Attorney General and Inspector General advised towns on the proper legal steps on procurement.

Kulp, who attended, said it wasn't clear until late in the session that towns would be handling procurement, though a five-page, single-spaced "Dear Municipal Leader" letter Larkin sent in early January mentioned the shift.

"There was lots of confusion and consternation — and shouting," Kulp said of the meeting. "Most of the people there didn't even understand why we were having this discussion."

Juliet Jacobson of Ashfield, who serves on her town's broadband committee, also expressed frustration over the development.

"MBI does not have a good track record on following through on what they say they're going to do," she said. "They've lost the trust of a lot of people in this area."

CLOSE CONTACT

Edmund Donnelly, the MBI's deputy director, said Thursday his outfit remains in close contact with unserved communities and is determined to minimize delays as a result of the latest last-mile policy change.

Donnelly said the boards of MBI and the group's parent organization, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, could approve the change as soon as this month.

"They're all anxious to get moving forward," Donnelly said of towns. "It's not a question of towns having to wait around for months and months and months while we're adapting our policies."

The policy change would call for MBI to work with an outside firm to design a broadband network for participating towns that are not being courted by large cable providers.

At this point, many towns are still considering which route to take, though others, including West Stockbridge, Lanesborough and Hinsdale, have already opted to receive broadband from Charter starting last year — a development made possible last August in part by a multi-million dollar grant through MBI.

The agency also devised a plan to expand broadband service in nine towns outside of Berkshire County.

Last June, MBI granted the town of Mount Washington $230,000 to put toward its last-mile network, which is expected to be finished late this spring, according to Jim Lovejoy, chairman of the town's Select Board.

Mount Washington handled its own RFP for a network builder, Lovejoy said. Because there is no town administrator, much of the work fell to the top board. "It was a lot of work, no doubt about it. But it wasn't an impossible job. Municipalities are perfectly capable of building infrastructure for themselves."

"Some towns may feel that it's more onerous," Lovejoy said of the process. "There may be problems, but they're not insurmountable."

Forty miles away, Steve Nelson, the manager of the municipal light plant for his hometown of Washington, said he's all for his community being freed up to pursue building its own network.

"Give the towns the money and let us do it," he said. "Then at least they're in control of the process. We all feel that if we can get the money and run with it, we'd be happy."

While it means extra work for the town, Nelson said he trusts that with help from the technical team at MBI, which he characterized as "great," Washington can bring a project in under budget.

Like others, he's eager to act. "There are endless twists and turns in this process. People are just, `Where is it already?'" he said.

MOVING AHEAD

In another step forward, nearly a dozen towns have completed MBI's "readiness process," moving them closer to the network design and build stage.

MBI last week posted proposals it received from private firms to provide coverage in unserved towns, but between the two that met bid rules, Comcast and Charter, just four towns were listed.

That appears to leave a number of unserved towns needing to build their own networks. Until this year, that prospect involved help from MBI from the start through to the end of construction.

Kulp, the Ashfield broadband panel member, said that along with cost pressures, MBI may view its relationship with towns as hazardous terrain for a business partnership.

"They're in a defensive posture because they're loathe to take on a project where they would have to create a legal framework to protect themselves from the towns," he said.

Asked about that Thursday, Larkin referred the question to Donnelly.

"I don't think so. I think it's the opposite," Donnelly said. "We're hearing from towns and trying to incorporate the feedback they've been giving us."

One element of the change is that towns might not have to provide as much payment upfront, easing cash-flow concerns, according to Donnelly. "That's the reason for it."

But by compelling towns to handle the network construction, some new costs could come their way, Donnelly said.

"We're working through that right now. We have to figure out how much the designs are going to cost," he said.

"We're very sensitive to the towns being concerned about having to pick up certain professional services costs that they weren't intending. We're very sensitive to that. We're trying to figure that out as part of our process right now," Donnelly said.

Jason Jayko of New Ashford has been helping press forward with his town's network building project, now underway. He is among those frustrated by steps that push the project back.

"This RFP process. That just delayed everything even further," Jayko said of the hunt for private-sector providers.

Jeremy Dunn of Becket is his town's delegate to WiredWest and sits on that group's executive committee.

WiredWest last weekend pitched a plan to provide operational services to towns that build their own networks. But that point remains far off, and Dunn, like others allied with WiredWest, feel that their views are not accounted for by the MBI.

"Either get out of the way or give us a seat at the table," he said after attending the WiredWest session in Northampton. "The relationship (with MBI) is thoroughly broken at this point."

Lovejoy, the Mount Washington Select Board chair, agrees. "Most of the towns are not feeling the love," he said.

That people disagree about the state of the effort — and progress made to date — comes as no surprise to Larkin.

"There might be a bit of a difference of opinion. We expect that," he said of the latest last-mile policy shift. "It's part of the dialogue that's going on. You're catching us sort of mid-discussion."

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


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