Massachusetts’ Hilltowns are Taking Control of Last-Mile Broadband

Too small for investment by the cable companies and virtually abandoned by the area’s dominant telephone company, rural communities in Western Massachusetts are taking last-mile broadband matters into their own hands. Luckily, they’re aided by rigorous investment from State Government and a strong middle-mile network. They also have a handful of very compelling service models to build on.

Late last year, we were fortunate to be chosen to provide Internet and phone services to the town of Leverett, MA after a competitive bid process. Since then, I’ve been spending a lot more time visiting the area for meetings and frequenting local businesses. Exciting things are going on in the Hilltowns, and other States could learn a lot from the Massachusetts model.

Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s role in Last-Mile Broadband

MassBroadband 123 and underserved Hilltowns

The MassBroadband 123 Network and Western Massachusetts’ unserved and underserved hilltowns. Green: DSL and no cable. Purple: Cable TV only no Internet. Blue: No DSL or Cable. Photo: Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute, or MBI, is best known for managing the State’s middle mile network, MassBroadband 123. MassBroaband 123 is a 1200 mile middle-mile network interconnecting 123 towns in Western and Central Massachusetts.

However, MBI has also been authorized to invest as much as $50 million in state funds for the bridging the digital divide through last-mile broadband projects in 45 un-served towns and nine under-served communities with partial cable service. This fund provides vital support in the form of matching grants as many communities examine their path forward.

MBI does not take a one-size fits all approach to solving the last mile problem. In fact, they list five potential models MBI lists on their website, and several of these are in progress throughout the Region.

MBI’s Broadband Models in Theory and in Practice

  • Expansion by a Private Provider. In this model, a private provider builds last-mile broadband infrastructure with funding from private, state and Federal funds. This is similar to many of the projects funded by Maine’s ConnectME Authority. This model limits public investment by encouraging private investment.
  • Expansion of Existing Cable Infrastructure. This public-private partnership provides a state subsidy to infrastructure investment by a private entity to expand broadband projects. Examples of such projects include recent Grants to Comcast and Charter to expand broadband in Hinsdale, Lanesborough, West Stockbridge and nine other Western Mass towns. While some might be concerned about perpetuating a monopoly, this model leverages existing cable infrastructure and private investment to limit the use of public funds.
  • A multi-municipal network. This regional approach leverages the scale gained by combining multiple communities, improving operating efficiencies and ultimately lowering the price of service. It also can allow towns to leverage last-mile infrastructure to cover much of the middle-mile in a highly reliable interlocking ring topology. WiredWest, is such an inter-governmental consortium including 25 communities spread out on both sides of the Connecticut River.  Its goal is to build a universal, sustainable, future proof community owned broadband service for residents of its membership.
  • Independent Municipal Networks are following Leverett’s lead and choosing to build FTTH networks and wireless networks leveraging the MassBroadband 123 middle mile. These include Mount Washington, Otis, and Alford, each of which has begun the process of designing or building their own Fiber to The Home Networks and are preparing to put the provision of service or network construction up for bid, while Warwick has begun upgrading its existing town-owned wireless network.
  • Pilot Projects allow communities to test new ways for delivering broadband in a portion of their community so that they can better understand how the model will work before building everywhere. Towns participating in pilot projects can later apply for last-mile broadband grants to serve the entire community. Middlefield received funds for a Wireless Pilot project in 2016. The project is expected to serve 32 customers using TV Whitespace.

Flexible Broadband Policy is Vital to Getting the Best Last-Mile Broadband for the Buck

By recognizing that one size does not fit all with last-mile broadband, the Commonwealth and the MBI have designed a framework that supports a variety of projects, technologies and funding mechanisms so that local leaders can take the best advantage of the resources available to them in building the best network for the lowest cost.

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