Town-led broadband efforts in Berkshires win $2.4M in federal aid
WINDSOR — A grant the town of Windsor didn't even have to apply for will significantly reduce the cost of rolling out high-speed internet service to its residents.
The town is among six Berkshire County communities and 15 others in Western and Central Massachusetts to be awarded money by the Federal Communications Commission.
In all, $10.3 million will flow to the communities over a decade, thanks to a winning proposal put forward by Westfield Gas + Electric, the public utility helping 19 of the communities create publicly owned fiber-optic networks.
All of the communities are also receiving substantial financial support from the state. The added money, allocated through the FCC's Connect America Fund, will reduce the financial burden on the towns.
"This might be a lifesaver," said Doug McNally, the Windsor Select Board member leading his town's broadband project. "It's making it a lot more palatable for some of the people who don't value internet access."
Windsor leads the dollar amount in the Berkshire County awards, with an allocation of $886,172 over 10 years.
In all, the Berkshire towns — Alford, Becket, New Ashford, Otis, Washington and Windsor — will receive $2,453,324 in the next decade. (For details, see accompanying story.)
Aaron Bean, operations manager for Westfield Gas + Electric, said the utility decided to pursue the funding on behalf of its clients — the 20 towns that asked it to help them create high-speed networks.
"It was a team effort compiling all the paperwork," Bean said. "There were a lot of white papers that you had to submit."
Because the FCC rates applicants in part on the technical performance of planned networks, the fiber projects scored well, helping them secure sizable grants.
"That's a great amount of money. It exceeded my expectations of where this would come out," Bean said. He noted that additional filings are required before checks arrive.
Eligibility for the federal money was based on Census block data that pinpointed that lack of access to broadband service.
David Kulp of Ashfield, who leads his town's broadband project and is working with Westfield, praised the utility for stepping up on behalf of the towns, using its technical know-how to speed applications.
The utility, Kulp said, "managed this complicated effort with no cut for themselves."
The grant allows towns to use the money in various ways to provide broadband access.
In Windsor, the $88,617 it will receive yearly for a decade could be used to pay down debt on money the town is borrowing for its share of the fiber project, McNally said.
The town might also direct some of the funding to help residents with long driveways lower their out-of-pocket costs in getting fiber "drops" to their homes, once construction begins. In a few cases, residents face costs as high as $10,000 to get fiber to their homes, McNally said.
He and others may raise the subject with residents at a previously planned special town meeting Sept. 24.
The FCC allocation represents roughly a third of the $2.3 million cost of Windsor's network, which is scheduled to launch service in late 2019.
Bean said the additional FCC paperwork, following the "short form" application that won the grants, is meant to assure that the networks would be constructed even if federal money wasn't available.
Though he downplayed the effort the application required, Bean quipped: "I would hate to see what the long form looks like."
He noted that some towns may opt to use the money to reduce the monthly cost of service.
Other towns in line for FCC funding through the Westfield application are Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, Rowe, Shutesbury and Wendell in Franklin County, and Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen and Plainfield in Hampshire County.
Nationally, the FCC's grant program set aside $1.98 billion in broadband grants.
Private companies were also eligible to apply for grants — and received allocations announced Tuesday.
Three companies doing business in Western Massachusetts came out winners:
Verizon Communications Inc. will receive $305,892. Crocker Communications Inc. of Greenfield will get $119,307 and Otelco Inc., which manages Leverett's fiber network, among other projects, is in line for $92,150, according to the FCC.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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