Our Opinion: Funding gap at root of last mile slog

The Western Massachusetts broadband effort has traveled a long and winding road over the past seven years, and traversing the last mile has taken on the dimensions of World War I trench warfare in which gains are measured in yards. Completing the last mile presents essentially the same dilemma that has challenged the effort since 2008 — getting parties with the same goal on the same page.

The comprehensive series by The Eagle's Larry Parnass and Patricia LeBoeuf February 4-5 charted the ups and downs, failings and successes of this process from its origins in the gubernatorial administration of Deval Patrick to the present day. The 19 "unserved" Berkshire communities are in various stages of getting this service, with all in agreement that for rural towns to keep and attract businesses, do well by students and in general function in the 21st century, this last mile must be completed.

Money, not surprisingly, is at the root of the problem, with the $40 million originally allocated an estimated $110 million short of the funds needed to serve all of the 44 communities the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI) was created to serve. Although the funding level proved unrealistic there is no momentum for additional funding.

Nearly a year was lost in 2015 and 2016 when a feud between MBI and WiredWest, a regional cooperative, over ownership issues stopped the initiative in its tracks. Whatever the merit or lack of same of MBI's concerns, WiredWest understandably felt ambushed, and the theme of MBI surprising Berkshire internet advocates and officials is one that repeats itself in The Eagle's weekend series.

The MBI's announcement last week that towns must hire their own broadband network builders if none have come forward is an example of an action that left some Western Massachusetts communities feeling blindsided. Whether this constitutes a course correction in the words of MBI Chairman Peter Larkin or a U-turn in the words of an Ashfield broadband committee head, towns that believed MBI would take them all the way through the cumbersome process felt understandably betrayed.

Communities that are far along in the process, however, evidently feel a weight has been lifted. Their argument is that the state should provide the funding while town officials pursue the best avenue to wire the final mile. "Either get out of the way or give us a seat at the table," said Jeremy Dunn, Becket's delegate to WiredWest and a member of that group's executive committee, at a recent information meeting in Northampton, and that sentiment is repeated in The Eagle's two stories.

Today, WiredWest is pursuing management contracts but is no longer seeking to be an owner or builder. Its regional approach is ideal for the Berkshires and Western Massachusetts but the concept appears foreign to Boston-centric organizations. Towns are pursuing a variety of ways to link the final mile, but the lingering funding gap from 2008 that motivated MBI's decision of last week remains a hindrance. That funding gap introduces "class elements," in the words of Williamstown's Donald Dubendorf, an MBI board member and veteran of the Berkshire internet wars, as residents of wealthy towns stand to get better last mile service than poorer communities, and get it sooner.

"There is a moral quotient to the investment of public money that we ignore at our peril," said Mr. Dubendorf of a moral quotient that government routinely ignores at its peril. The state should find a new funding mechanism to enable rural towns to complete the last mile, and we urge state Senator Adam Hinds and our Berkshire House delegation to lobby for additional aid. Otherwise the last mile may be largely patchwork with some Berkshire residents getting shortchanged compared to neighbors. And the moral quotient will not be met.


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