Mount Washington clears first broadband hurdle

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MOUNT WASHINGTON >> The smallest town in Berkshire County has just taken the first step toward what may be its largest-ever expense: high-speed Internet.

The state Senate on Monday approved a bill, sponsored by state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, that authorizes the town to establish, own and operate a broadband infrastructure project and issue bonds to fund it.

The bill allows Mount Washington, population 140, to establish the infrastructure without having to establish a municipal light plant.

While state law calls for the town to have or establish a municipal light plant to borrow funds to support construction of the system, town officials believe such an entity would be financially and logistically onerous, given the size of the town.

Downing's bill also authorizes the town to borrow money for the project for up to 20 years.

Selectman Chairman Brian Tobin said there was "strong support" for the project in town.

"It's something we have to do as a town," he said. "And we have the support for it."

Tobin said "it's too soon to tell" exactly how much the project will ultimately cost and how much money the town will end up having to borrow to complete the project.

But, he said, town officials anticipate "that this will be one of the largest expenditures in town history."

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Tobin said the town opted to push forward on funding and building its own infrastructure because the plan will allow the community to pay for it the same way as any other town project, such as roads and buildings.

"The town explained that they didn't really want to add another bureaucratic layer to this process," Downing said. "And to their credit, they worked with us and came up with a plan to fund the project."

On July 13, a majority of voters at a special town meeting overwhelmingly approved the home rule petition. Downing said the petition will now go to the state House of Representatives.

The Select Board has developed a business plan, worked with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and hired counsel to assist with financial matters. To date, approximately half of Mount Washington residents have signed up for installation of high-speed internet.

Tobin said officials opted to undertake the project without joining the Wired West community of communities seeking high-speed Internet, "because we think we can get it done faster," because of the small town population.

Tobin said Internet access in Mount Washington is nearly non-existent. Some residents have satellite dishes and other have long-distance Wi-Fi service, "but to my knowledge, no one has dial-up service."

All of these options, he said, are slow and at times unreliable.

The final step will be approval from the state House of Representatives. Downing said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli has signaled he would support the plan.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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