Telecom industry salvages win in new town broadband law

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A legislative compromise has cleared the way for emerging town-owned broadband networks to serve homes and businesses in neighboring towns that risk being denied high-speed internet access.

"A good win," said Bethann Steiner, chief of staff for state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield.

But the telecommunications industry, which opposed the measure, came away with a victory as well in the closing hours of the session. It secured wording that protects private broadband companies from possible new competitors.

The relatively obscure issue was addressed in eight lines of text in the 58-page economic development bond bill that Gov. Charlie Baker filed in March.

People now working to launch 20 town-owned broadband networks say they wanted the legal clarification to clear the way for them to extend new fiber lines across town borders, when needed, to serve "edge" properties that could not be reached by their own municipalities.

They feared that not getting the measure into law could trip up efforts to bring high-speed internet to rural communities backed by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

While the practice of crossing borders is not forbidden by existing law, the town networks feared a challenge from the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association.

That trade and lobbying group succeeded in having the language removed from the House version of the bill when it was being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.

Hinds, who had been tracking the issue since the governor filed his bill and was in touch with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, managed to get the language into the Senate's economic bond bill.

At that point, it again came under fire from the industry. The group was able to change the wording.

The final provision added the qualifier "unserved" to descriptions of premises that could be reached by networks across town borders, ruling out those with existing access to broadband.

And a new final sentence dropped a kind of digital force field that favors legacy private companies.

"This section shall not apply to a municipally owned broadband network that is seeking to provide broadband service to premises already served by at least 1 broadband network," it reads.

The language was developed by the House and Senate negotiators in consultation with the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

An official with the telecom association, speaking on the condition he not be identified, said Wednesday that his group's focus is on getting high-speed internet service to people who don't already have it.

When asked whether the outcome gave the industry a new protection, he said he had not thought of it in that light. He said all parties are satisfied with the outcome.

Hinds, though, acknowledges that the last-minute change, made during private deliberations to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, favors the industry.

"That was surgically protective," Hinds said.

By limiting who can receive service from the emerging public broadband networks, the measure limits options, the senator said, "for residents who don't have the luxury of multiple options that residents in other parts of the state have."

"Maybe it's a larger policy issue to tackle in another vehicle," Hinds said.

But for now, he said clearing the way for new public networks to reach isolated locations is vital.

"We are satisfied that this is another way to ensure that these unserved residents get coverage," he said.

Chuck Garman, a member of Becket's broadband committee, welcomed news of the measure's enactment, even with the tacked-on prohibition.

"That doesn't seem to impact our town," Garman said. "We're not looking to move into someone else's town."

To reach residents on the other side of the Massachusetts Turnpike with its planned network, Becket faced the possibility of having to pay $100,000 to get fiber to three or four customers.

The measure will allow Otis to reach those Becket addresses. Both towns are working with Westfield Gas & Electric Co. to create fiber networks.

Twenty communities are pursuing or operating town-owned networks with help from the state. In Berkshire County, they include Alford, Becket, Mount Washington, New Ashford, Otis, Washington and Windsor. Other unserved or formerly unserved communities opted to work with private companies like Charter and Comcast, both of which have received financial outlays in the form of incentives from the state.

Still other Berkshires communities, due to their larger populations, already had access to broadband service when the state stepped in a decade ago to close the "digital divide."

Savoy and Florida are moving forward on a plan to receive service through a wireless network operated by WiValley of Keene, N.H.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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