Steve Nelson: Western Mass. broadband 'pause' goes on and on

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WASHINGTON, MA. >> "The Pause That Refreshes." That's an old Coca-Cola ad slogan which has become a common phrase for rethinking and reenergizing before charging ahead.

At the Jan. 26 meeting of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute's Board of Directors it was announced that the Baker-Polito Administration had called for a "pause" in the last-mile broadband project in Western Mass. Now nearly two months later, people here thirsting for high-speed Internet access can't help but wonder if the project is "The Real Thing."

To address such concerns, a statement was sent March 14 to town officials from Elizabeth Copeland, recently named interim director of MBI, and Katie Stebbins, assistant secretary-technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship, Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. Stebbins also chairs the MBI board.

Their statement said in effect that the pause will continue, with the administration "asking MBI to develop policies to ensure that it is reviewing and analyzing all options." No deadline was set to complete this process, which "will include review of technologies, cost projections, and various project design and delivery, governance and operating models" to produce an MBI strategic plan for broadband.

In reality, the project has been paused since Dec. 1, when MBI's then-Director Eric Nakajima announced that MBI was withholding funding from the municipal broadband cooperative WiredWest due to concerns about its governance and operating models.

The administration believes it necessary at this late date to rethink and reenergize the project with a clear strategy. But MBI been tasked with deploying broadband since it was established by state law in 2008. It has over the past few years issued numerous contracts to consultants and lawyers which presumably should have helped it develop a last-mile strategy.

It was not MBI but WiredWest which for years pushed for a last-mile solution, which developed governance and operating models for such a solution, which worked for passage of over $38 million in borrowing authorizations for the last-mile project at town meetings last spring, and which signed up over 7,000 would-be customers for internet service with $49 deposits.

Broadband's backbone

Despite the critical role played by WiredWest and its member towns, and their important accomplishments toward making broadband a reality, nowhere does the statement explicitly acknowledge that. So here's to you, the WiredWest delegates and town officials who teamed up to pass those borrowing authorizations and sign up those customers. And here's to you, the people who voted for WiredWest with their ballots and their wallets. You are the backbone of broadband, so stand firm in your commitment and you will make it happen.

The principal goal expressed in the Stebbins-Copeland statement is something everyone agrees with: public investments in broadband must "be sound" and yield "sustainable, affordable broadband solutions which will provide reliable high-speed internet access for many years to come." This echoes the wording of WiredWest's mission statement when it was founded nearly five years ago.

We all know that the project has dragged on for far too long with no concrete progress yet to be seen, no work crews with boots on the ground, no bucket trucks at utility poles. We're not refreshed by the pause, we're exhausted by it, we're frustrated with it, we're angry about it. But we will get beyond it.

The Stebbins-Copeland statement concludes by saying: "We will continue to provide you with information about our progress during this review and the strategic planning process." But such a one-way flow of information from them to us is not enough. Broadband is too important, and public confidence in the project is too shaken, for the state to act with so little transparency or public involvement.

Instead, the administration and MBI must commit to: (1) setting a firm, short-term deadline for MBI to complete its strategy development and end the pause, and (2) launching a process for town officials and the public to provide input into that strategy and how state funds will be spent, including holding hearings in western Mass.

Everyone, from the governor down to the average citizen, understands the need for bringing broadband to our small towns. That's not in question. What is in question is how to accomplish that, and how soon it can happen. As Coke would put it, "Make It Real".

Steve Nelson is delegate to WiredWest for the town of Washington.


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