Massachusetts Broadband Institute still faces gaps in broadband map
PHOTO GALLERY | Mass Broadband Institute in Lee
LEE — Lots of orange. Blue and green. And a sprinkling of red.
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is slowly coloring in its map of Western Massachusetts towns, indicating how unserved communities will obtain broadband internet service.
But 10 towns are still colored white, haunted by the ghost of internets past.
A slide that flashed on a wall Tuesday in the Lee Town Hall Courtroom labeled them "Towns Exploring Options."
But for now, no clear options are available for Florida and Savoy in Berkshire County.
Neighboring Hampshire County towns of Middlefield and Worthington are also still reaching for service.
In a meeting Tuesday, members of the MBI board came west to review the status of last-mile projects. The institute is using $50 million in bond funding to close the digital divide.
Fifteen months after setting a new "last mile" strategy, the quasi-public institute plans to issue a new request for information to find companies willing to get it to the finish line.
Bill Ennen, last-mile liaison for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said the 10 towns still need a path to high-speed connectivity. "They're essentially paused and on hold and waiting for something else to appear."
The new request for information, expected to be completed as early as next week, will be more flexible than the request for proposals the MBI issued in January.
"We're trying to get other alternatives out there," Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board, said of the new request.
Several companies that responded to that earlier solicitation, including Crocker Communications, failed to meet the document's financial and industry benchmarks.
Larkin said the new request will attempt to locate other prospective partners for the unserved towns.
Rather than require that bidders promise to connect 96 percent of premises in a town, the new document might lower that bar.
In rural towns, homes are spaced far apart, pushing up installation costs. In the cable industry, a common threshold for service is the ability to reach 25 premises in a mile of road and have half of them become subscribers.
"This administration has empowered us to 'break the eggs' and try anything to work," Larkin said in an interview. "We're making progress, albeit it's a work in progress."
By changing terms of the request, Larkin said the MBI hopes to flush out new corporate interest. "We're hoping some of the providers will come back," Larkin said.
Edmund Donnelly, the MBI's deputy director, said towns still on the sidelines have common concerns. They include doubts about their ability to oversee a municipal network and the town investment required.
Board member Don Dubendorf, a Williamstown attorney, said in an interview he is concerned towns remain on the margins.
"If we don't fix Florida, Savoy and Monroe, this whole thing's a failure," he said. "I measure this by the weakest of us, not the easiest."
One company is pressing to play a role.
Chris Lynch, director of business development in New England for Matrix Design Group, said he planned to meet Tuesday night with officials in Savoy.
He said the 20-year-old privately owned New Jersey company is also interested in serving Florida and Worthington.
Matrix has constructed systems in both Vermont and Massachusetts, Lynch said. "We're doing this based on real-world experience," he said.
Larkin said the MBI has not been able to substantiate Matrix's track record. "And we have never seen any finances," he said.
Lynch said the company did not respond to the January request for proposals because it did not meet the required benchmarks.
By far, most unserved towns in Western Massachusetts are opting to use grants from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to work with Westfield Gas + Electric to build publicly owned systems.
In Berkshire County, the 19 towns receiving direct grants to build systems include Alford, Becket, New Ashford, Otis, Washington and Windsor.
One of the towns furthest along is Mount Washington, in the state's southwestern corner. Officials there are using an earlier grant from MBI to build a network that is expected to go into service this fall.
But in Middlefield, the chairman of the town's Communications Committee is still getting a familiar question from residents: When?
"They hopefully will have it very, very soon," said Stephen E. Harris. "But we don't have a timetable. We're definitely moving along."
Officials with MBI said Tuesday that bids for a pilot wireless project in Middlefield "far exceeded" money available. Harris said the project never got off the ground.
Now, his panel is recommending construction of a fiber network in the town's business district and use of wireless broadband elsewhere. That proposal still needs other town approvals.
While Monterey is listed as a town still exploring options down in south county, some premises are signing up with a private company, Fiber Connect.
Previously, Monterey had been part of a cluster including New Marlborough, Sandisfield and Tolland.
Frontier Communications had pitched to provide service to the group. But after Monterey dropped out, Frontier took steps to revise its offer, seeking additional compensation. Larkin said the agency is working to help the three remaining towns negotiate with Frontier.
As of now, the MBI has committed $41.7 million to last-mile projects, according to Donnelly of the MBI.
That leaves $8.2 million available, a sum that prompted Dubendorf to ask: "Do we have the confidence we can get the last 10 towns done with the available funds?"
"We just don't know yet," Donnelly replied.
But he added the governor's office is "very well aware of where we stand" and is committed to finishing the MBI's work.
On another financial issue, MBI officials clarified Tuesday that though an early estimate of last-mile installation costs contained errors, grant sums will not change.
"If there is a cost overrun, it falls on the town," Donnelly said. "Some of the towns are skittish about that."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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