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Mass. Broadband Institute Chair Talks Pandemic Response, Last Mile Program Update

Massachusetts Broadband Institute
A map from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute showing communities eligible for the Last Mile Program

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute was created by the state in 2008 to bring high-speed internet to communities struggling to get online. One of its efforts – the Last Mile Program –  focuses on more than 50 underserved and unserved towns in Western and Central Massachusetts. MBI Board chair Peter Larkin says as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the institute is working to open up Wi-Fi hotspots in some communities to fill the pressing need for internet access as schools and many businesses remain closed. Larkin spoke with WAMC.

We've got about 13 of them now, that we're working with. We've already got three of them that are- four of them that are already connected. Egermont, Hawley, Montgomery, Monterey and New Marlboro. And then of course we have, uh, 14 other communities we hope to bring on board. We're reaching out through their internet service providers, and utilizing Westfield Gas & Electric as well. That's Ashfield, Blandford, Becket, Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colerain, Cummington, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, New Salem, and Washington, and Wendell, and Windsor. There's another 12 other communities we're trying to reach out as well, we're sort of rolling this out. And again, we're trying to bring a 250 megabit per second wireless hotspot, free to those communities in a- we call them community anchor institutions, they're actually the library or the town hall depending upon what the community would serve- would need. It would allow residents to drive up, could be as many as 30 cars in a parking lot. Recognizing that social distancing is still important. And they make available a 250 megabit per second wireless hotspot for everyone.

Now, how long is that program going to be in effect for?

We're going to have it available free of charge, up through September. We'll revisit this as we, as you know, the states adjust to the changing dynamics, due to the pandemic. And, but right now, we hope to have this through, available through September.

Looking at the broader project, what progress has been made in the Last Mile communities as of April 2020? And what's happening over the course of the next half of the year?

Well, we brought nine underserved communities online. This is going back a couple years ago, and we've also have now 17 of the, of those other communities now are fully served. That was the end of this year. We've recently are moving forward, with Peru and Tyringham, they're, they're soliciting subscribers now in those communities. But all the other projects are going forward. They're in degrees of what they call "make ready", getting space on the poles to stretch the fiber throughout their community and bring broadband to each one of them. We're also working with cable providers, Comcast and Charter to do similar work in different communities as well. So every community that we've dealt with, we had 53 to start, we have pathways forwards for all- for 52 of the 53. We have one community remaining, New Braintree, that we hope to have an offer to provide them broadband shortly.

As far as the challenges that this project faces, what are the major impediments to seeing this through?

I think we're, like I said, we're all on a pathway forward. Clearly, there's costs associated with this, some of these towns obviously had votes publicly by their local population to take on, say 50 to 60% of the debt load of these projects going forward. The state's allocation or money probably represents about 40% of the project's cost. So it's sort of a joint state and local commitment to these projects. There is a nominal amount of money that's brought in by the federal government in the form of FCC funding, if you will, over time, but it really amounts to about a $10 million amount of money. And this whole project overall, is over $110 million dollar project.

As far as working with providers on the project, you mentioned some big names a moment ago, like Comcast and Spectrum. Are there smaller providers that the state is also working with in this initiative?

We're, we're partnering, if you will. I mean, clearly, you know, one of the things that is coming forward is, you know, we have about 20 towns that are building their own municipal networks who are working for Westfield Gas & Electric and they're working with different internet service providers to be sort of like the front window and manage the project once the projects are built. So you'll see a number of smaller ISP that have come forward, OTELCO is one of them, and also, Crocker Communications, in some respects has also been involved. So you have smaller players as, as well as large cable companies putting their shoulder to the wheel. But, frankly, most of the communities themselves, most of the communities are building their own networks, that they'll municipally own.

At this point looking forward, what is the timeline look like for you? Is this a project we're gonna see completed by the end of the year, or in the coming years?

Well, we expect, like I said, 17 have been completed. Fully serving beyond the nine underserved communities that were also fulfilled. We hope to bring on another 15 to 18 communities in this given year, things have been a little bit slow, slower because of the, obviously the pandemic, but that'll bring us you know, maybe another 12, the year after, that's how it kind of plays out. And so we think in the next two to three years, all the unserved communities will have a broadband solution, operational in our community.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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