Federal grant boosts municipal broadband networks

Staff Writer
Published: 1/4/2020 3:37:27 PM
Modified: 1/4/2020 3:37:01 PM

Several Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire county towns, including Shutesbury, Cummington, Goshen, Chesterfield and Plainfield, will have their fiber-based broadband projects supported by a federal grant provided to Westfield Gas & Electric.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced in late December that the public utility, which is managing the broadband construction projects in 20 rural towns, has secured $10.2 million as part of a funding authorization from the Federal Communications Commission, through the Connect America Fund Phase II. The money will support the delivery of high-speed internet to residents in those communities, which combined have more than 12,400 households.

The money will be available to Westfield Gas & Electric over the next decade and will supplement construction projects that have already received more than $19 million from the state’s Last Mile Infrastructure Grant program. The FCC requires speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads in broadband projects, but the participating towns are building their networks to provide 1 gigabit-per-second speeds for both downloads and uploads.

Baker said in a statement that the federal money will help Massachusetts meet the needs of unserved and underserved populations.

“We will continue to work with our municipalities and other partners to make these investments in reliable high-speed internet access and the quality of life for all residents,” Baker said.

As an example, Goshen will receive $261,762 from the second phase of the Connect America Fund, with 10 percent of this disbursed annually over a period of 10 years after completion of its $3.14 million broadband project. That project is supported by a $1.4 million Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote approved by residents and $1.48 million in state money, including $770,000 in grants from the original Last Mile program.

In Shutesbury, Gayle Huntress, the town’s municipal light plant manager, said the federal money will not affect current operations or the town’s completed construction, with the last of the 763 homes connected to its network hooked up before the new year. All 42 miles of Shutesbury’s network is up and fully operational, about a year after breaking ground.

Huntress said the federal award could reduce future costs for subscribers when these funds are released.

In Plainfield, construction on its $2.8 million project broke ground in June, with $1.53 million in funding from town taxpayers and $650,000 from the Last Mile program.

The new money from the FCC was supported by the congressional delegation representing the region.

“Reliable high-speed internet is an essential service that everyone should have access to,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said in a statement.

“The Connect America Fund from the Federal Communications Commission has been a great help to communities like those here in western Massachusetts who are still at odds as to how to get broadband for their residents,” said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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