‘Last mile’ broadband service may prove hardest
The Massachusetts Broadband Institute says it’s working to find ways to fill the gaps in high-speed, “last mile” availability that exist throughout the state, but that a proposed $40 million state bond is geared for those 45 communities where fewer than half the households have that access.
MBI Executive Director Judith Dumont was reacting to an article last week saying that Shelburne, Buckland and other towns which have some cable availability but still contain unserved areas won’t be among those first in line for a state-aided fiber-to-the-home solution with that bond money — if it’s approved.
Dumont said MBI is focused on getting “last mile” service to those towns that do not have high-speed access through DSL (telephone Digital Subscriber Line) and cable.
MBI, which has installed more than 92 percent of the fiber in a 1,200-mile “middle-mile” network that is seen as the first step in delivering wholesale broadband service to 123 municipalities in western and central Massachusetts, is looking at how it could use bond money to attract other funding and to build fiber to the homes in 42 “underserved” communities, and three where there is no access to high-speed service.
“Our mission at MBI is to help bring connectivity throughout the commonwealth,” Dumont said. “Our first priority is to reach the unserved and underserved communities.”
Using the National Telecommunications and Information Administration definition, unserved means that less than 10 percent of the population has access to 4-megabit-per-second service, leaving Wendell, Warwick and Mount Washington as the only three communities in that situation (Warwick has a town-run fixed wireless service as its only provision for Internet.) There are also 45 “underserved” towns in the five-county region covered by MBI’s MassBroadband 123 project that have no cable service, including Ashfield, Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leverett, Leyden, Monroe, New Salem, Rowe and Shutesbury. MBI hopes to provide them with last-mile “fiber-to-the home,” building on the newly completed fiber-optic network, at an estimated total cost of $80 million to $100 million.
Beyond the $40 million bond bill, which is pending in the state Legislature, that will depend on getting other funding, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund.
Shock in Shelburne
But while officials in Shelburne expressed shock recently at not being MBI’s focus for a further build-out, Dumont said, there are an estimated 25,000 additional households across the state in unserved pockets or neighborhoods of cities and towns where there may be 70 or 75 percent coverage. Some of those are even in Boston, she said.
“If you live in one of those neighborhoods that don’t have it, you’re not happy,” Dumont said, conceding that the difficulty in lining up enough funding to build a last-mile solution in every corner of the state is greater than many people realize.
Although MBI’s first focus has been to bring so-called middle-mile trunk lines into unserved and underserved western Massachusetts in order to entice private servers to build last-mile service, she said getting the last mile built “needs to be solved as a commonwealth issue, because it’s not specifically a western Mass. issue, because it’s spread all over.” But while officials in towns like Shelburne acknowledge that more than half of their populations may have access to broadband, that doesn’t mean they’re happy with MBI’s approach to dealing with neighborhoods where cable providers or Verizon have not made service available — especially when the 42-town WiredWest cooperative has been aimed at building a 100 percent fiber-to-the home network.
In Shelburne, where an estimated 50 to 70 percent of the population has access to broadband service, mostly clustered in the village of Shelburne Falls, former Selectman John Payne questioned why towns like Rowe or Plainfield should be given preference for finding a “last-mile” solution rather than towns like Shelburne or Buckland simply because they are less completely served by cable.
“They should use the same ground rules for everyone,” he said. And he questioned, “Why are they unwilling to create competition for fiber” where cable companies — essentially monopolies — refuse to build lines throughout an entire community.
The solution, he said, may have to come from the example set by Leverett, which voted at Town Meeting last year to proceed with its own last-mile build-out, paid for with town taxes. The project, awarded to Millennium Communications Group at a cost of $2.28 million, is expected to be in place and turned on by December 2014.
In Montague, where even fewer of the town’s households aren’t served by Comcast, and therefore don’t have access to broadband, Town Planner Walter Ramsey said, “We’ve kind of gotten overlooked by MBI. They’re not going to address the outlying areas. It’s frustrating, because we feel like we haven’t gotten help from Mass. Broadband at all.”
Montague Cable Advisory Committee member Jason Burbank said that with the town’s cable contract now under negotiation, the committee has proposed extending the service to more remote areas in the southern sections of town.
Dumont said MBI is looking at ways to encourage the cable companies to extend their service areas in those partially served communities, using an approach that’s being tried in Maine and Vermont — essentially subsidizing their build-out in sparsely populated areas.
“We believe this should be a regional solution,” Dumont said. “We can come out with the world’s greatest plan, but if we can’t get the funding in place for what that plan is, it’s not worth anything. We need to be working together, with the communities, and get their involvement. If the towns start going it alone, asking for pieces of that $40 million, that’s not a good situation. Then we have all these little fiefdoms where the cost of construction and operations will go up.”
Meanwhile, MBI has been holding one-on-one meetings with the 123 towns and cities in its middle-mile network to help them see how they can make use of the 1,200 “community anchor institutions” — largely schools, police and fire stations and town halls and libraries — where the middle-mile network can be turned on.
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