In western Massachusetts, about 40 communities have spent nearly a decade trying to improve Internet service. Governor Baker recently took a step to help clear the way. He took $20 million out of the control of the struggling Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI).
Now, towns can apply for $20 million in infrastructure grants through the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development. MBI will now refocus on other projects, like managing its middle mile network and refining agreements with large cable companies.
The transition marks a change in state policy that many local communities have longed for because they've seen MBI as an obstacle, rather than an aid, to improving better connectivity.
Quick Turn Around for Grants
It’s a step in the right direction for towns that depend on slow DSL, expensive satellite, and even those that still use dial-up connections. Communities that belong to the WiredWest cooperative, which has been in negotiations with MBI for years on it business model, are especially glad to see the shift. In mid-March, local leaders and representatives from MBI and Housing & Economic Development met to discuss development of a new grant process.
After that meeting, a WiredWest representative from Plainfield, Massachusetts, Kimberly Longey, told the local newspaper Berkshire Eagle:
"What we really need is the ability to have self-determination in this process. … We're cautiously optimistic. We think this is a good step. I have a feeling that things are lining up."
The Recorder and MassLive recently revealed some of the details of this new grant process. Procedure will follow the proven model of the Housing & Economic Development’s MassWorks program, which provides funding for major infrastructure projects like sewer and water systems.
The process will have clear guidelines and expectations, and each town can expect its application to be reviewed two weeks after filing. Grant funding will be disbursed within 30 days of a town signing with a contractor to build the network. Each town that chooses to build their own network will still expect to pay about 2/3rds of the total cost.
MBI’s Changing Role
MBI still has a role in Massachusetts’ Internet infrastructure build out. Although the organization is being stripped of half its funding, it has $20 million left for other responsibilities. MBI has to manage the statewide middle mile network, MassBroadband 123, and finish negotiations with the cable companies, Comcast and Charter.
The $90 million middle mile network, built using state and federal funds, connects towns’ governments and community anchor institutions, but not residents. The operator that MBI had contracted recently declared bankruptcy.
As for Comcast and Charter, there’s a plan in the works to build cable networks in some towns but the incumbents will own the infrastructure, not the communities they serve.
Private providers have presented proposals for several western Massachusetts towns for cable networks. Shutesbury recently rejected both Charter's and Comcast's proposals, opting to invest in their own publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but several other communities are still considering similar proposals. The plans would give the town's share of public funding to the incumbents to build cable networks that the incumbent providers would own and operate. The towns would have no financial responsibility or control. Shutesbury rejected the offers because neither incumbent was willing to build to every address without additional funding from the town.
Communities Move Forward
Whip City Fiber in Westfield, Massachusetts, is expanding its FTTH network to more residents and businesses. The utility has also approached several other communities in the area about working with them as consultants to help get their own community network projects up and running. Otis is already working with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E) to deploy its FTTH network.
The Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development rolled out the grant program on April 3rd.