Berkshire reps push for internet boost during pandemic

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NORTH ADAMS — With the legislative session winding down, House members have crammed 499 amendments into an economic development bill.

The Berkshire delegation is pushing a range of amendments, but there's one recurring theme: better internet service.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, is proposing to mandate internet providers to upgrade service to the highest speed for the remainder of the pandemic.

"I can pay for faster speeds at my house without them even coming to my house, so they do have the ability to do it," Pignatelli said. "With more people working from home, there's no reason why they cannot at no extra charge make the internet speeds faster for our communities."

Unregulated prices and poor internet speeds have long hampered Berkshire County, said state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, but the pandemic has accentuated the need for better service.

"The communities are going to provide their own broadband to their residents if we're going to keep the prices back where they belong, but most importantly get it to the people who need it," Barrett said.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, filed a string of amendments totaling $2.4 million of support for broadband internet and commercial development in Pittsfield.

One of those amendments would get Pittsfield $1 million to do a trial study in "two or three" areas as the city seeks to become an internet service provider.

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The House version of an infrastructure bill includes $1 million for Berkshire communities to determine the cost of constructing a municipal broadband network. That bill still needs to be reconciled with a Senate version before it goes to the governor.

The Senate version includes $10 million for rural cell service via a proposal from state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

In the House economic development bill, another Pignatelli amendment would allocate $50,000 to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission for a study of possible cell tower locations. The study would find the number of towers necessary to cover Berkshire County and the ideal locations, and municipalities could vote to determine where towers are eventually placed.

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"We need a plan for cell towers," he said. "We shouldn't leave siting towers up to the tower companies or a property owner who's looking to make a few bucks."

Pignatelli also sponsored an amendment to use $1 million to provide Chromebooks to low-income students studying remotely due to the pandemic, as well as amendments for a $50,000 feasibility study of a Great Barrington water district merger and a $100,000 land acquisition for senior housing in Lenox.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, has an amendment to provide $1 million in funding for accessibility improvements for the Stationery Factory in Dalton. His other amendments include the creation of a state Office of Rural Policy and a Center for Employee Ownership, seeking to bolster research on issues affecting rural communities and to give workers greater influence, respectively.

Farley-Bouvier has long pushed for a bill to provide driver's licenses to residents who are unable to provide proof of lawful presence in Massachusetts. An amendment was filed and withdrawn before debate after a similar amendment was withdrawn from the police reform bill passed by the House last week.

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Housing groups are also backing a slew of amendments that they say would work toward racial and housing justice, including one amendment providing a right to counsel in eviction cases and another extending the statewide eviction and foreclosure moratorium to 12 months.

While the fate of the amendments remain unknown, their implementation would depend heavily on how much funding the state gets from the federal government, Barrett said

"A lot of these amendments — they're not real until the governor releases the funding on it or there is money that comes back from the federal government," he said. "It's all contingent on funding from the federal government."

A lighter amendment proposed by Pignatelli would require representatives to receive training on how to mute a phone during teleconferences.

"As state representatives, we have an obligation to serve our constituents by making our voices heard," Pignatelli wrote in a summary of his amendments. "However, for the sake of communication in doing the people's work, it is sometimes equally important to make sure that our voices go unheard."

The House began debating the bill Monday and had acted on two amendments by press time.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle's Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.


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