Gov. Baker hears of 'last mile' gains, bottlenecks

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WESTFIELD — The image on the flat-screen TV pleased Gov. Charlie Baker.

"That map makes me very happy," the governor said.

It showed progress on providing access to broadband internet in the 53 towns that had no such service, or only partial access, when Baker's administration reset state policy two years ago.

But in an hourlong stop at the headquarters of Westfield Gas + Electric's Whip City Fiber unit, Baker heard about problems that continue to trouble towns without high-speed, even as new customers come online and work advances.

The top issue involves a number: 39,000.

That's the rough count of the poles owned either by telephone or electric companies that will be used to hold new internet service lines, either in municipally owned networks or those owned by legacy cable TV providers.

Officials in towns working to create broadband networks say they continue to face delays in getting utility companies to perform the "make ready" work on poles that must precede placement of lines, despite efforts to accelerate work.

To address that, staffers with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development held two summit meetings, in April and July, to encourage quicker work. The utility companies were represented at the sessions, held at the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable.

Bill Ennen, last-mile liaison for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, also runs a weekly Thursday call that seeks to pinpoint problem areas. "This is all about getting the poles ready to receive the fiber," Ennen told the Thursday morning gathering in Westfield.

Aaron Bean, operations manager for Westfield Gas + Electric, who is overseeing his company's work on behalf of 20 municipal partners, said that the make-ready issues have gotten better since those meetings began. Bean said arranging the make-ready work is complicated, but vital.

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"In the pole-licensing phase we're experiencing our own challenges," he said. "This is like drinking from a fire hose. A lot of work coming in."

As it works with 19 towns to design and build networks, Whip City Fiber is essentially taking on a project as large as the "middle mile" constructed with state and federal funds early this decade.

In all, Bean's utility is working with 20,000 poles along routes that extend for 1,000 miles, he said.

Peter Larkin, chair of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute board and a special adviser to the secretary of Housing and Economic Development, acknowledged the make-ready challenge. "Believe it or not there is one pole holding up Lanesborough," Larkin said.

Bill Hiller, a Select Board member in Otis and member of the town's Broadband Committee, said his community had to make an upfront payment of about $1 million for make-ready work on utility poles — and continues to wait for much of that work to be performed by utility companies.

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"Essentially, we're giving an interest-free loan," Hiller said.

Towns are also finding that if poles are in bad condition, it falls to them, not the utilities, to cover replacement costs — a condition that is driving up last-mile expenses across the region.

"There's been negligence on [the part of] the utilities, I believe," Hiller said.

The Eagle asked a Verizon spokeswoman to comment on whether its poles have been properly maintained and to explain what it is doing to reduce delays in make-ready work.

"Verizon continues to work with Massachusetts Broadband Institute, other utilities and municipalities to provide access to thousands of poles across western Massachusetts," said Jennifer Kirby Banks, a Verizon spokeswoman. "We recognize the importance of this project and will continue to collaborate with all parties until the work is complete."

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Because of higher-than-expected costs, the 19 communities that are constructing their own fiber networks, with the help of Whip City Fiber, face funding gaps.

Kimberly Longey, of Plainfield, said she and others are determined to keep the cost to subscribers of the town's network below $100 a month. "The last-mile funding is only getting us two-thirds of the way," Longey said of state financial assistance. "We don't know how we're going to fill that gap. It's the affordability of the service that keeps me up at night."

Gayle Huntress, of Shutesbury, was one of several town officials to praise the work of Baker's team, regardless of remaining problems. "Your support from the Statehouse has been absolutely invaluable," she said.

She singled out Ennen for providing "clear and transparent communication."

Hiller, of Otis, said, "Without you guys it couldn't happen."

Baker said that once he was able to focus on the last-mile challenge, he said he heard "plaintive" voices. He paused to spell the word out to avoid confusion. "There was really a lot of bad blood in the conversations I had with people," Baker said of his initial study of the state's work to date on the issue. "The lieutenant governor and I both believe in this in a very big way."

"It's been so long in the making," said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. "We will get to every single community."

Listening in Thursday was Westfield's mayor. He expressed support for the role the city's municipal utility is playing in closing the digital divide in rural communities to its north and west.

"I know the small towns are dying to get it to their doorsteps," Mayor Brian Sullivan.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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