| Amy Porter
HILLTOWNS – On Nov. 26, leaders from the MassTech Collaborative, Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), and Comcast joined residents in Montgomery to celebrate the official launch of the town’s broadband network, a project constructed by Comcast with support from the Commonwealth’s Last Mile grant program. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute at MassTech Collaborative awarded Comcast a grant of up to $805,800 in June 2017 to design, build, own, and operate a broadband network in the Town of Montgomery.
“It works great,” said Julie Ruszala, chairman of the Montgomery Broadband Committee at the launch. She said her family used to have a digital subscriber line (DSL), and two people couldn’t use the internet at the same time, making it hard on her as a graduate student, with two sons in high school.
The launch last month makes Montgomery the 16th Last Mile town with a completed project, one that will deliver broadband connectivity to an expected 100 percent of premises in the town, above the Last Mile grant’s target of 96 percent.
Tolland is another unserved town that has just finalized plans to move forward with Comcast. The MBI and MassTech Boards of Directors approved a grant in June 2019 to Comcast under the Flexible Grant Program to support the buildout of a network that will provide broadband access in Tolland. Subsequently, the town awarded a cable franchise to Comcast and the parties have executed a Cable Television License Agreement.
MBI, Comcast and Tolland are working on preliminary activities, including the development of a plan to address a three-mile route in the town that does not have any existing utility poles or conduit. New infrastructure will need to be built to reach the neighborhoods in North Tolland, according to Brian H. Noyes, director of Communications and Marketing at the MassTech Collaborative.
Two of nine partially-served towns that also benefited from the Last Mile grant program were Chester and Huntington, when in August 2016 the state awarded up to $4 million in state funds to reimburse partial project costs for Comcast, which had existing networks in each of the nine towns, to construct broadband internet extensions to additional homes and businesses.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re built out. We were one of the first to get the build out from the state. We finished the build out over two years ago,” said John Baldasaro, chairman of the Chester Select Board. He said all but four houses that were “remote, with no power” were covered in the build out.
Baldasaro said broadband has made a difference for Chester, where there were several properties that had been on the market for years, and four sold very quickly after getting broadband. “Our rate of sale has picked up dramatically. One of the first questions (we’re asked), is do we have high-speed internet,” he said.
For Huntington, the build out took longer, while the Cable Advisory Board negotiated with Comcast for three years to find a way to provide broadband access to 100 percent of the residences.
At an information meeting last May, Huntington Selectman Darlene McVeigh said that for over 25 years, only 70 percent of residents had cable in Huntington. Over the last few years, due to the grant funding from the MBI, Comcast connected up to 97 percent of the homes at no cost to the town, McVeigh said.
Chairman Edward Renauld said after a long negotiation by the Cable Advisory Board, led by Chris Saner, Comcast guaranteed a quote of $140,835 for 18 months to build out to the remaining 17 homes. He said taking the $140,000 out of stabilization was the best way for the town to pay for the build out. The warrant article to transfer the funds from stabilization passed at the annual meeting.
“Fifteen years ago, it was a luxury to have high-speed internet,” Renauld said, adding that now it is a necessity for work and school.
One of the decisions that had to be made by unserved towns was whether to become a municipal light plant and own the broadband infrastructure, or to award a cable franchise as Montgomery and Tolland did, which Comcast will own and operate.
Ruszala said Montgomery was initially split on how to go forward, voting down joining the WiredWest collective as a municipal light plant three times, largely due to an elderly population on fixed incomes that were wary of raising the needed taxes to go forward. She said the Baker-Polito Administration got involved, negotiated with Comcast, and paid for the infrastructure through the Last Mile program.
Both Otis and Blandford voted to own their infrastructure, receiving direct grants from the state for their projects, and borrowing the remainder through bonds. They also both voted to partner with Westfield Gas and Electric’s Whip City Fiber for the buildout and as their internet service provider (ISP).
Blandford received a direct grant of $1,040,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in December 2017 to design, engineer and construct a municipally-owned, broadband network. This grant will enable the town, in partnership with Westfield Gas and Electric, to bring broadband connectivity to at least 96 percent of homes and businesses.
Last week, Peter Langmore of the Blandford Municipal Light Board said the broadband is on schedule, all the poles have been replaced, and they just opened the bid for a construction company. He said they should start placing the fiber early next year. He said the town is running fiber on most of the roads. “There are a couple of places where it is cost prohibitive to put new poles in,” he added.
Langmore said Gov. Charlie Baker announced in November another grant of $5 million that will reimburse towns $500 for every home that takes service, per drop, up to 70 percent of homes. He said before construction starts early next year, they will host information sessions for people to sign up for the service. He said people should consider agreeing to have fiber to their home, at no cost, depending on how far they are from the road, even if they don’t want it, because the value of their property will increase.
“When the time comes, we’ll encourage people to do that. The higher percentage of people that sign up, the lower the cost,” Langmore said. He said the HUB is prepared for the network, and will be put in this spring.
“Westfield Gas and Electric is a wonderful company to work with; very helpful and knowledgeable,” Langmore said, adding that Blandford was one of the last towns to start, and has been able to draw on the resources of towns that have gone before them.
One of the towns that Blandford used as a resource is Otis, which is about a year ahead of them in the process. According to the MBI, make ready is complete in Otis and construction is about 80 percent complete, but that phase is followed by the installation phase. They have installed to over 400 subscribers out of a possible 1,800 as of November, according to MBI records. Otis received a direct grant of $1,770,000 from the Commonwealth in May 2017 to support the project.
Otis named its network Otis Fiber, and has set up a website at otisfiber.com, which describes itself as a high-speed internet service delivered across a fiber optic network directly to homes or businesses, providing upload and download speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second, or 1,000 Mbps, powered by Whip City Fiber.
Whip City Fiber is working with more than a dozen hilltowns in Western Massachusetts to help them establish their own fiber networks, providing guidance and expertise, with expenses covered by the towns. The towns are then not obligated to choose WCF as their ISP, but many of them are, which WCF has stated has the potential to provide significant revenue to support additional construction in Westfield.
Granville and Russell, the last two towns in our coverage area, both had an existing municipal broadband system and were not eligible for Last Mile program grants, according to Noyes.
At the Montgomery celebration in November, Baker released the following statement:
“Expanding access to high-speed, broadband internet is critical to providing opportunities to local businesses, residents, students and families. We are committed to supporting our municipalities by working with them to bring reliable connectivity to communities in Central and Western Massachusetts through the Last Mile program.”