Town broadband projects fight telecom opposition to law tweak
Town-led broadband projects across Western Massachusetts are fighting for a single paragraph in the Legislature's massive economic development bond bill — a provision that costs taxpayers nothing but is opposed by the telecom industry.
The measure would allow town-owned networks funded by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to cross town lines and serve "edge" customers who might otherwise not be reached.
Failure to restore the language, in the final days of the state Legislature's formal session, could hobble efforts to bring high-speed internet to rural communities, people involved say.
"I hope the need for small-town connectivity will win over the worries and fears of bigger internet providers," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Homes and businesses in rural areas might remain in the digital darkness if they cannot be served across borders by some of the 20 municipal projects now taking shape in several counties.
Eight lines of text allowing that activity appeared at the end of the 58-page bill presented March 9 by Gov. Charlie Baker.
But along the way, the provision dropped out while the House bill was being reviewed by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies.
On Wednesday, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, succeeded in restoring language allowing cross-border service in the Senate's version of the economic development bill. Representatives of the two chambers must now agree on a final version.
Pignatelli said the measure faced opposition from the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, a five-state trade group representing private companies.
The association, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the telecom industry, says it opposed the provision to avoid seeing "mission creep" by town networks into neighboring communities already served by private providers.
An official with the association, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said nothing in existing law prevents new town fiber networks from crossing borders to reach stranded customers. He faulted the language later dropped from the House bill for not specifying where those cross-border ventures can take place.
The association, he said, does not oppose having town broadband networks reach over into unserved areas.
In the past week, members of small-town broadband networks, led by Gayle Huntress, the municipal light plant manager in Shutesbury, orchestrated a campaign to restore the language.
Huntress confirmed that existing law — dating back to the emergence of gas and electric systems — does not prohibit the extension of networks across municipal borders.
"But it doesn't clearly allow it either," she said. "It's still a gray area."
When she issued an email call this month for people across the region to contact their legislators, Huntress didn't have to explain what was at stake.
"This is bad and threatens our municipal network success for obvious reasons," wrote Huntress.
For towns that opted to build and own high-speed networks, particularly in areas where geography isolates homes just across borders, regional cooperation is considered critical.
Huntress noted that if the Wired West proposal for a single regional fiber network had advanced, the "edge" problems would not have been a factor.
The legislative change, she said, would provide clarification that cooperation can remain a factor.
"It's going to be an assurance of our continued success," Huntress said.
Hinds said Thursday that the amendment he inserted into the Senate bill would clear the way for networks backed by state funding to expand service as needed across town lines. He called it "another tool in our toolbox" in getting high-speed access to unserved towns.
"I hope we can get this included," Hinds said of negotiations to reconcile the two bills. "It's just common sense."
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute says 20 communities are pursuing or operating town-owned networks. In Berkshire County, they include Alford, Becket, Mount Washington, New Ashford, Otis, Washington and Windsor.
Savoy and Florida are moving forward on a plan to receive service through a wireless network operated by WiValley of Keene, N.H.
Chuck Garman, a member of Becket's broadband committee, said his town wants a network that reaches customers at a reasonable cost.
The border problem is particularly important to Becket, because it faces a cost of roughly $100,000 to reach a handful of prospective customers on the other side of the Mass Pike. He said companies that have conduits under the highway have declined to make them available.
The solution, Garman said, is to have Otis provide the fiber connection to three or four premises.
"It's so expensive to make these crossings of the Pike," he said.
Becket and Otis are working with Westfield Gas & Electric Co. to create fiber networks.
Pignatelli said he heard from people in Becket interested in having the Legislature address the issue.
Efforts to get the language back into the House bill came up short, he said. But Pignatelli worked with Hinds to tuck the amendment into the Senate version.
"I'm glad to see it go through on their side," he said of the Senate. "This is vastly important to my district."
Pignatelli said he plans to ask the senators and representatives working on a final joint bill to include the language.
But the telecom trade group will be weighing in, as well. The official said the association plans to remain engaged with the issue until the Legislature finishes its work by its July 31 deadline.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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