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Editorial: Broadband limbo; repairs at Wentworth

A long, government-backed project to close the digital divide in Massachusetts is coming around the bend. But once the ambitious MassBroadband 123 initiative powers up high-speed Internet connections for underserved communities late this spring, the full job won’t be done.

Time will tell when — and if — residents of our region’s small Hilltown communities, long ignored by big Internet service providers, will see that digital divide go away. “Middle mile” fiber-optic cable may now hang from utility poles in their town centers, but the “last mile” links to homes and businesses are anything but certain.

This casts a pall over years of good work by Judith Dumond’s Massachusetts Broadband Institute. While the new cable strung at a cost of more than $70 million will bring high-speed service to town buildings and schools, a significant gain, it still leaves a lot of people out of the loop.

Closing that loop was the whole point when Gov. Deval Patrick, in the early days of his first term, came to Goshen to kick-start a campaign to address this problem.

Leverett took this gap seriously enough to secure taxpayer support for last-mile Internet connections. In most communities, hopes hang on Wired West, a cooperative that is working with 42 towns to complete the loop. The group is working on funding; end-users will of course help pay for ongoing service, but the question of initial investment in infrastructure remains the problem.

It’s why big private sector companies stayed away from this market.

A spokeswoman for Wired West said it might take six to 12 months to get funding, then perhaps another 18 months to secure permits and build the local systems. Our guess on how long the divide will remain: Five years or more.

Middle mile. Last mile. Just don’t let it all be a dead end.

Setback at Wentworth

An inspired conservation project in Amherst suffered a setback last week. Drenching rain Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 caused flooding at the Wentworth Farm Conservation Area that washed out plantings along a spillway below Owens Pond.

Now, parts of the popular area will not be accessible to visitors, as Western Massachusetts Electric Co. and its contractors work with the town’s Conservation Commission on remedies. The first goal is to stop erosion.

The project last year did away with an old structure and pipe system at the western edge of the pond that was once part of a dairy farm. The alterations were designed to restore more natural water movement in the area and reconnect the pond with the Fort River, ending barriers to fish migration.

WMECO had spent $80,000 on the project in exchange for work it was allowed to do on power transmission lines in wetlands in Leverett and Montague. Now, work at the conservation area is going to cost a bit more, but the investment is worth it.

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