Mass. lawmakers to seek $45 million influx for broadband work
Despite progress over the last 18 months in closing the digital divide, eight towns in Western and Central Massachusetts still lack a plan to obtain service.
And other communities face unanticipated costs, due to miscalculations years ago by a state consultant.
The House and Senate this week are resolving details on a large-scale reauthorization of funding for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
The money — which nearly doubles earlier allocations — comes as the MBI adjusts expectations for last-mile service in the most sparsely populated towns and reaches out anew for private-sector solutions.
The institute is also racking up legal expenses as it deals with cases in both U.S. District Court and U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
The new funding would arrive as the MBI presses to complete its last-mile mandate. To improve the odds, the institute is rolling out new approaches.
In one, it seeks proposals from established broadband service providers interested in providing networks that would reach a smaller portion of an unserved town than the MBI first required.
Before, the MBI asked that networks reach 96 percent of a town's premises. The new grant program will accept a smaller reach, if the town involved agrees.
In Berkshire County, the towns of Florida and Savoy still lack last-mile plans.
"They are very remote and there are particular challenges for each of these communities," said Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board.
The new grant program is designed to solicit interest that can complete the institute's mission to provide high-speed coverage to unserved towns.
As of this fall, 37 of an original 45 such towns have service or plans are underway to provide it.
As of Monday, plans before lawmakers called for roughly $32 million to be allocated for a grant program overseen by the secretary of housing and economic development.
Another $13 million would be provided for the Broadband Incentive Fund that has provided money for the MBI's work.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance said after both chambers pass a compromise bill, it would go to the governor's desk.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said some of the new money will be made available to towns that, due to miscalculations, must devote more in local taxpayer dollars to their networks than first expected.
The money would be allocated based on need.
"They're calling it the 'extra mile,' to try to true everybody up," said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, referring to discrepancies between early cost estimates and actual expenses.
In securing added funds, lawmakers from the region were able to win backing from colleagues whose communities get nothing out of the allocations.
"We've worked hard to convince our eastern colleagues that this is desperately needed," Pignatelli said. "That we're in a disconnect here, literally and figuratively."
"We've got to get this done," said Pignatelli, who believes the MBI has achieved more in the past year than in the previous several years.
Mark said he and his colleagues did a little horse-trading. They secured the added broadband funding by agreeing to support a roughly $200 million allocation for construction of a new Chelsea Soldiers Home. The state needed to commit to that project now to secure federal backing.
Mark said that about $5 million of the new broadband funding will be used to increase incentives for private-sector investment in broadband service for towns still on the sidelines.
"It's why they haven't been able to come up with a plan yet," Mark said of those towns.
Over the last year, Larkin has often been asked by officials in unserved towns whether the state was willing to increase funding to fully address the last-mile problem.
Larkin told The Eagle several times that the question would be put to the test — as it has been this month in Boston.
"We knew there was probably going to be a need for more money," Pignatelli said.
The institute has also adjusted its requirements for a private-sector proposal it initially sidelined.
Early this year, Crocker Communications of Greenfield responded to the state's first request for proposals from broadband providers. The state at the time was trying to identify companies interested in playing a role in last-mile connections.
Though Crocker was deemed not to have met requirements at the time, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative — which encompasses the MBI — will now grant the company a path forward.
Crocker will be allowed to work with its partner, the Japanese tech firm Fujitsu, to pitch last-mile plans to towns that still have no suitors and do not want to build their own networks.
"It's a way to get the network built for the town," said Matthew Crocker, the company's president.
The MBI is giving Crocker a chance to provide the same sort of service the state has accepted in principle from Frontier Communications, the firm that has a pending deal to bring high-speed fiber-optic service to the towns of New Marlborough, Sandisfield and Tolland.
In that case, the state has agreed to contribute $1 million more than initially forecast for broadband solutions in those three communities. Now, the state will pay Frontier $4.77 million upfront, once the plan is set.
If Crocker's plan passes muster with towns and the MBI, it would also be eligible for additional state funding, as in the case of Frontier.
Crocker said his company is reaching out to the eight towns, including Savoy and Florida as well as Hawley and Monroe in Franklin County.
Under the model pioneered by Frontier, the towns guarantee a payment for each potential customer reached by the network. If that dwelling or business subscribes, they are billed. If not, the town covers a monthly cost.
As with the Frontier deal, that requires a home-rule petition to clear the Legislature as well as approvals at town meetings.
"If the network is successful, then the town doesn't owe anything," Crocker said.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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