MBI pitches Charter broadband to New Marlborough, with strings attached
Under the proposal, outlined Friday, Charter Communications would be paid $3.1 million to build a network reaching 96 percent of the town's homes and businesses, then charge subscribers for service.
In the past year, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute has used state money allocated to unserved towns as a carrot to attract interest from Charter or Comcast, sometimes adding extra money.
But in New Marlborough, the town would be asked to cover half of the gap between its existing state allocation and what Charter is demanding to build.
Peter Larkin, MBI's board chairman, came to Town Hall on Friday to propose a deal in which the state would pay half of the remaining expense for Charter's network — a sum put at $1.44 million.
That would leave the town expected to pay about $720,000 to the cable company, for a system the private firm would own.
"The state is willing to cut the gap in half to make this project go," Larkin said.
Broadband Committee Chairman Richard Long said after the meeting that he believes the proposal would make New Marlborough the first of the unserved towns in Western and Central Massachusetts to have to add in its own money to obtain service with a cable company.
No decision was made Friday, as the town considers its options. A public forum is planned in the next few months.
Larkin also said that, in consultation with the state Department of Revenue, the state is able to lend the town that $720,000 in what might be a 10-year plan, for instance, at $72,000 per year.
"Our intention is to be the best creditor you've ever seen," he told members of the Select Board and Broadband Committee. "We're trying to get it done. We're trying to be helpful."
The offer comes as the town struggles to find a broadband solution at an affordable price. It's a town of about 1,500 and 86 miles of road, three villages, but a mostly scattered population.
Last fall, New Marlborough left a multitown group negotiating with Frontier Communications over the company's demand for upfront costs.
But Charter is not the only player.
Matrix Communications, Fiber Connect, Wired West and Crocker Communications also have put in proposals.
And Monterey-based Fiber Connect has applied for utility pole attachments in New Marlborough, as it goes about fiber-optic build-outs in Monterey and Egremont.
Larkin told the Select Board that the state is trying to make a last push to get 10 remaining towns without broadband plans connected. That means using each town's share of state grants in a way that accommodates the uniqueness and size of each town.
New Marlborough's share of that is $1.7 million — in this case, that money would go to Charter as part of the MBI package.
"Not to look a gift horse in the face, but where is this money coming from?" Long, of the broadband panel, asked of the MBI's offer to help the town pay.
Larkin said it was a state-authorized allocation to help close these gaps.
Sean Cronin, a commissioner at the DOR, suggested that if there were enough subscribers to the service, the annual payment to the state could be borne by those users with a $10 monthly fee, and keep the costs off property tax bills.
It appears that the MBI and DOR are bending a bit to move this along with Charter.
"The state may spend moneys or engage in other activities that benefit or incentivize private businesses in order to promote such [economic] development and it may authorize or partner with its cities and towns to do likewise," Larkin recently wrote in a letter to towns still struggling to arrange for broadband and close the digital divide.
The state's acknowledged preference for cable companies doesn't sit well with some.
"Call me a whistleblower, concerned citizen, activist for fairness, justice and democracy, but for Massachusetts Broadband Institute to show such blatant preferential treatment [to Charter] when there are qualified, experienced local options feels like corruption, and it needs some serious daylight," town resident Dave Travis wrote this week on a town email list.
Tim Newman, of the broadband cooperative Wired West, asked Larkin on Friday if the additional $720,000 MBI is willing to invest in a New Marlborough system is limited to a Charter project.
"Is the generosity you're presenting to our town on behalf of Charter the same generosity if the town were to build its own network?" he asked.
Larkin said a company like Charter has the financial wherewithal to handle the project.
"We do believe in the cable companies ... we think it's a value worth leaning in a little bit harder for," he said.
Newman doubled down about the town's eligibility for the same extra support for its own project: "So, the short answer is 'no' — the $720,000 would not be available?"
"No," Larkin said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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