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‘Last-mile’ broadband service supported at legislative hearing

Legislation that could add $40 million for “last-mile” broadband service in unserved rural towns was supported during a hearing last week before the House Committee on Bonding, State Capital and Assets, as part of a more comprehensive $870 million information technology initiative.

The three committee members who attended heard from most of the region’s legislators, including Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who testified that he lives in a place that lacks broadband access, cell phone service, “and my TV doesn’t work.”

The panel also heard from Select Board members, from four WiredWest cooperative executive board members as well as residents and received 250 pieces of written testimony from town officials, business leaders and others, according to Monica Webb, WiredWest Executive Committee chairwoman.

“It was so clear, at the hearing and in written testimony, that people are really desperate” for access to high-speed telecommunication around the region, said Webb, adding that there are potential business opportunities in rural communities that are being passed over because of limited broadband access.

Webb and others who attended the session said the panel appears to recommend the broadband bond.

In her testimony to the panel, Massachusetts Broadband Institute Executive Director Judith Dumont pointed out that the last $40 million in 2008 helped bring in an additional $110 million in public and private investment to build MBI’s “middle-mile” fiber network that’s now being tested. And she said the new $40 million could help attract similar investment to link the fiber network to addresses that remain unserved.

Area legislators are already considering how to tweak the $40 million pot, which is now loosely worded to help bring “broadband Internet access to areas of the commonwealth currently without high-speed” service, so that it also helps bridge service gaps in towns with sparsely populated sections.

e_SDLqWe want to make it clear for those communities that have significant pockets where there is no service, that we feel it’s very important to address those as well,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where the bill heads next. “We think this bill provides a good opportunity to do that.”

Using a model that’s been successful in places such as Vermont and Maine, the western Massachusetts legislative delegation has been hoping to work with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative on essentially subsidizing the expansion of cable service in towns where the household density is under the cable providers’ threshold for installing cable.

Kulik said the hope is to “provide some funding to encourage companies to expand in towns where there are large service gaps. We see some changes as this moves out of committee and goes forward.”

One idea, which has been successful in Vermont and Maine, would provide “cost sharing for incumbent cable providers to build out across each community, or to provide access across community lines.”

Massachusetts towns negotiate individually with Comcast for cable service, he said, “but we’re trying to look on a regional basis, so for example, if you can get service to a corner of Buckland from Ashfield, it’s not an insurmountable problem.”

While Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed $40 million bond bill would help provide fiber-to-the-home service in 45 unserved towns at a total cost that could exceed $100 million, another effort is aimed at getting sparsely populated neighborhoods that have been passed over by cable and telephone companies for high-speed service.

Maine’s “ConnectME Authority,” largely using funding from a surcharge on all intrastate telephone calls, has funded 114 projects over its six years, increasing from 75 to about 96 percent the state’s households that have access to broadband.

ConnectME works with communities, clusters of communities and cable, telephone and wireless providers they contract with to provide the “gap financing” to encourage providers to build service lines to “those pockets, those doughnut holes in the more rural areas,” to make it cost effective for them to build out in those sparsely populated areas, said Executive Director Phil Lindley.

“We fund those areas that (otherwise) just won’t generate a fair return on investment … Our goal is much like the goal with telephone service: Anyone who wants it should be able to get it. That’s likely not to be 100 percent, because it’s going to be in places that are too hard to reach.”

One indication of the difficulty is the per-houseshold cost of projects now, in the $1,200 to $1,500 range, compared with maybe $300 six years ago, he said.

In Vermont, where more than 96 percent of the state’s nearly 300,000 addresses are served by broadband, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority solicits projects for funding after focusing on the state’s E-911 database to determine which areas remain unserved, according to Outreach Coordinator Caro Thompson.

The Vermont authority recently awarded nearly $300,000 to FairPoint Communications — the state’s incumbent telephone carrier, and more than $135,000 to Southern Vermont Cable Co., the Vermont Business Journal reported, to expand service in areas that include Brattleboro, Putney and Wilmington, while last year it granted $2.5 million to four companies for service in 52 towns.

“We’re filling in the gaps,” said Thompson. “Our first priority is to get service to everyone.”

In Massachusetts, one question that needs to be ironed out as the state broadband initiative looks to expand service to under-served communities, is how to let communities negotiate with cable providers for a reasonable deal that can then be encouraged with state funding.

“The subsidies don’t go to Comcast,” said Franklin Regional Council of Governments Executive Director Linda Dunlavy, who is also on the MBI board and the board of the Western Massachusetts Connect consortium. “They would go to the towns, or subregions of towns, or someone like us, and then we would negotiate with Comcast. How do you arrange a deal so that the cable companies do the right thing with the subsidy?”

Webb, whose 42-town WiredWest cooperative includes six members that are partially served by cable and DSL, said, “The towns definitely need to enter these negotiations together” to elicit the best deal for broadband service.

And not everyone believes that a cable monopoly such as Comcast would necessarily be the best option for building “last-mile” networks.

Robbie Leppzer, a Wendell documentary filmmaker who has also been a member of the Western Massachusetts Connect effort, said he would prefer to see any state money for expanding broadband capability remain in the public sector, “where towns and their residents have more say in the process.”

Although a town delegate to WiredWest, Leppzer said he was not speaking in that capacity. “Personally, I would love to see a nonprofit, community-based solution because it would be a more effective use of money, and it would keep it in the fiber-optic realm.”

Comcast uses coaxial fiber to connect its lines with homes, and Leppzer said, “While it may be adequate for now, it will not meet the needs of the 21st century. Fiber-optic is the future for the Internet, for television and for phone communication. We’d be creating a two-tiered system.”

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