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The 'last mile' broadband gap is nearly closed. Money is now flowing to people who can't afford internet

Gov. Baker arrives at Ashfield Town Hall

Gov. Charlie Baker shakes hands Thursday with Tom Carter, a member of the Ashfield Select Board, on the steps of Town Hall in Ashfield on Thursday. 

The job isn’t done, officials concede. Of the 53 Massachusetts towns deemed to be on the dark side of the digital divide a few years before the pandemic, seven have not secured full access to high-speed internet service, including Egremont, Florida, Monterey and Savoy.

But 46 towns have gained it through the Last Mile program — 15 of them in Berkshire County.

With weeks left in their administration, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito arrived late Thursday morning in a western Massachusetts town to mark the progress made.

“It was a long time coming,” Doug McNally, the retired educator who led development of Windsor’s town-owned fiber network, said in an interview at the gathering. “A lot of us were at it for a lot of years. It would not have happened without this administration. Politics aside.”

McNally remembered Polito’s visit to his town, when he filled her in on how severely the lack of broadband hobbled his community.

“She said, ‘Stick with it, it’s going to happen.’ It did,” he said.

Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito in Ashfield

Gov. Charlie Baker, left, with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Ashley Stolba, undersecretary of community development in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

Joined by scores of people involved in all aspects of the quest to expand broadband access, they climbed the stairs into Ashfield’s Upper Town Hall. Together, they recalled times of frustration. Of negotiation.

And, eventually, of breakthrough.

Leaders of local municipal broadband projects, including David Kulp, the Ashfield resident who led Ashfield’s fiber broadband campaign, thanked Baker and Polito for allowing individual towns to choose their own ways of closing the digital divide, after years of relative inaction on the state level following the completion of the “middle mile” network.

Kent Lew, a Select Board member in Washington who managed his town’s fiber broadband project, recalled in an interview that the state’s 2017 decision to let towns choose their own paths — toward publicly owned networks, or as customers of commercial ventures — accelerated progress.

“It was clearly a turning point,” Lew said. “I don’t think that can be overstated.”

While the middle mile system brought high-speed service to town halls, libraries and schools, the “last mile” link to homes and businesses remained missing.

Frustration mounted across the region. “It went from chagrin to success,” Peter Larkin, the former Pittsfield state representative who now chairs the Massachusetts Broadband Institute board, said in an interview. “It went from frustration to solution. And, now, how do you build beyond that?”

Peter Larkin, Natalie Blais and John Barrett III listen in Ashfield Town Hall

From left, Peter Larkin, chairman of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute board; state Rep. Natalie M. Blais; and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, listen to comments about the state's Last Mile program. 

Next steps

With federal infrastructure investments flowing in, a new administration will oversee what’s shaping up as an entirely new drive to provide broadband access.

This time, the last mile isn’t geographic. Officials at the event announced a Digital Equity Partnership Program that will endeavor to bring high-speed service to people who live in places where broadband is available, but isn’t fully used.

That may be because it’s too expensive, or because people don’t have computers, or lack technical skills.

With that shift, the “last mile” campaign extends to people who may live anywhere in Massachusetts — to 351 cities and towns, not just the 53 that have been the focus for Baker and Polito’s entire second term, and part of their first.

The pivot comes as a massive influx of federal funding approaches — roughly $350 million, Baker said. That compares to the $57 million invested by the state in the last-mile program, which saw 40,000 new utility poles pounded into the ground, 2,000 miles of fiber laid and 26,000 homes and small businesses getting access — for the first time — to high-speed internet.

Baker said it became clear to him the lack of broadband preempted other conversations in this region. “It was one person after another talking to me about the agony that came with high speed in their communities,” he told the Town Hall audience.

Even so, he said his administration had a hard time, at first, understanding what was needed — or wanted, in terms of state support or incentives.

“It turned out that what they didn’t want was the single solution,” Baker said, meaning a “one size fits all” approach.

Gov. Baker speaks in Ashfield about closing the broadband divide

Gov. Charlie Baker praised people in the crowded Ashfield Town Hall who took part in the Last Mile program. “This was a total team effort. We're incredibly grateful for all the work that so many people in Western Mass. bring to this. And incredibly proud of the team and the work that they did to make this happen."

As unserved towns across western Massachusetts found out, Baker and Polito were willing to adjust the state’s remedy, enabling some to invest in municipally owned networks, and for others to team up with legacy telecom companies that received state subsidies.

“There’s a big difference between ‘I don’t want it’ and ‘I don’t want that one,’” Baker said. “And once we put together the menus, people got very interested in it. And then our colleagues in the Legislature came through with some very serious resources to make this happen.”

Baker praised people in the crowded hall who took part. “This was a total team effort. We’re incredibly grateful for all the work that so many people in Western Mass. brought to this. And incredibly proud of the team and the work that they did to make this happen.”

“Because [broadband] is like running water or electricity. And I really do hope that it serves as a benchmark for Western Mass. going forward, with respect to how you live and how you operate in your communities,” Baker said.

Turning the microphone to Polito, Baker called her the campaign’s most valuable player.

“It’s really a bookend moment for our administration, as we come here,” Polito said. “I’m not surprised to see a full house, because this is obviously a really important issue to all of you, and for all of us.”

Lt. Gov. Polito speaks in Ashfield

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito recalled the frustration she and state officials encountered over the lack of broadband. “There were a lot of crossed arms and long faces for the right reasons,” she said.

She, too, saluted the many dozens of small-town officials in the audience — and recalled how her early trips across the region drove home the depth of the problem.

“There were a lot of crossed arms and long faces for the right reasons,” she said. “Thank you for the incredible honor to have been part of the team of people to help solve this problem — for our commonwealth and for this part of our state.”

Sharing credit

State Rep. Natalie M. Blais, D-Sunderland, said everyone in the room who worked to create town broadband networks deserves credit.

“We are here today because each and every one of you stood up, again and again and again, year after year after year,” Blais said. “And you told your stories about how the lack of conductivity was impacting your lives. Well, those stories resonated across our entire Commonwealth.”

The audience in Ashfield Town Hall

Scores of officials from across western Massachusetts gathered to mark the substantial completion of the Last Mile program led by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. 

“Thanks to you, there was a growing understanding that communities in the Commonwealth were being left behind when it came to economic development, housing values, education, health care, public safety,” Blais said. “I want to offer a very sincere thanks to the Baker-Polito administration. What you’ve done was really incredible, and I want to thank you for providing us with the opportunity to be here together today, to celebrate how far we’ve come. That is a result of our collective efforts.”

Blais then introduced Kulp. “We are here today because of people like David Kulp, who were relentless in their efforts to bring broadband to every corner of the Commonwealth.”

David Kulp speaks in Ashfield

David Kulp, who runs Ashfield's broadband fiber network, speaks of the reasons he led that project. 

Kulp told a personal story of what motivated his activism: his wish to raise his two young children in Ashfield, after his wife Laura’s death from breast cancer, following a diagnosis at age 36.

Without high-speed internet, he struggled to find work in tech. Today, with broadband access from his home, he is able to work as a vice president with a California-based pharmaceutical company. That company is developing a drug to treat metastatic breast cancer that will undergo a Phase 3 clinical trial next year.

“About 15 years ago, I started working with other community members in Western Mass. to try to improve our internet,” Kulp said. “I won’t bore you with the history. This is supposed to be a short story — and getting here had so many twists. I often joked with my kids that they would probably have moved out before we got broadband. … But almost miraculously, just as COVID hit, Ashfield started lighting up homes.”

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Managing editor for innovation

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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