The toughest mile
State provides funding to wire rural towns for internet
IN 2008, THE Patrick administration set out to wire 123 cities and towns in western Massachusetts for broadband. But eight years, 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable, and nearly $100 million later, the effort has stalled with 44 communities still without high-speed internet.
The towns that remain essentially disconnected—or, in the words of state officials, “unserved”—represent 12.5 percent of the state’s 351 cities and towns but only 1 percent of the state’s population. Because of the limited subscriber base and the construction challenges in the wooded and hilly regions, private cable providers have been unwilling to invest in building what is termed “the last mile” to connect homes and businesses to the network constructed by the state.
Peter Larkin, board chairman of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, says the “one-size-fits-all” approach that was envisioned at the beginning of the plan assumed that if the state took on the burden of building out the “middle mile,” private companies such as Comcast, Charter, and the like would finish off the job. (A correction has been added below to this story.) But, he admitted, their financial model would not allow them to provide service to the smaller towns at a low-enough cost that would ensure a sufficient subscriber base.
Larkin says the state, through the Broadband Institute, which was formed under the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative to connect the unwired west to the world wide web, is stepping in to provide an additional $45 million—$40 million for towns with no high-speed service and $5 million to complete the job in 10 communities deemed “underserved.” The money has rebooted the interest in the program. He says high-speed internet—defined by the FCC as 25 megabytes per second download speed and 3 megabytes per second upload speed—is not a luxury just for the well-heeled, justifying the investment by the state.
In 2014, the Legislature authorized the technology bond bill that provided the money. Earlier this year, Gov. Charlie Baker redefined the broadband initiative to allow more flexibility for communities to complete the “last mile” connections and provided the funds to either build out municipal or regional service or attract a private provider who wouldn’t otherwise invest in the project. The state in August reached an agreement to pay Comcast $4 million to complete the wiring of 10 communities considered “underserved.”
Residents, businesses, and municipal officials agree that high-speed internet should be considered a utility, as necessary for daily living as electricity and water. They point to the need for children to be able to view homework videos and lessons that require faster service than DSL or cell service and businesses that rely on larger and larger files and graphic requirements to operate on par with their big-city competitors.
Joe Roy, Jr., and his son Joseph P. Roy run the family-owned The Floor Store in West Stockbridge and, after years of relying on phone modems and sluggish DSL service, have finally been brought into the 21st century by being connected to Charter Communications broadband service. The service came after the state agreed in August to pay the private company $1.6 million to connect 440 households in West Stockbridge, Lanesborough, and Hinsdale, all in Berkshire County.
Joe Roy says his business relies “100 percent” on the internet to exchange quotes, designs, measurements, and orders. He says with DSL, he would have to use the internet after work hours to download files so as not to gum up the daily business. With broadband, he says he can multitask and download data in a fraction of the time.
“If this didn’t happen, I would go back to doing a lot less business in a more clunky way,” he says.
Stan Moss, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Princeton, concurs. Moss, who runs an IT service provider for small businesses, says there have been “inferential” studies showing population and home value declines in Princeton, which does not have broadband, while connected surrounding towns have experienced increases in both areas.
Indeed, of the 44 towns defined as “unserved” by the state, 28 of them lost population between 2010 and 2015, a period when the state as a whole experienced an increase in population. Moss says, despite Princeton having high-performing schools, it is a struggle to attract families who want their children to be able to compete academically.
At the beginning of September, Princeton was on the verge of asking voters to approve a $3.4 million bond issue to create a municipal broadband service because of the inability to attract a private provider. But just days before the vote, Comcast sent a letter of interest because the state is making $910,000 available to build the “last mile.” Moss, who says the town will entertain applications from other companies as well as Comcast, says he’s happy it looks like Princeton will finally be on par with its neighbors but he’s frustrated it’s taken so long and that it required public money to get private enterprises interested.
“We were talking informally with Comcast and Charter for a year and half and they weren’t interested,” he says. “Without this money, under normal circumstances, no way would they wire the whole town.”
Under the state’s definition of connectivity, a town is deemed unserved if it has service less than the federal minimum of 25/3 and it is underserved if less than 96 percent of the community is not connected. Most private providers have a template that requires a density of at least 15 homes per road mile with a target of 50 percent subscriber base to justify the expense. Of the towns that are unserved, 25 have a population of less than 1,000 people, with miles between houses in some areas.
Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, admits there was a period of “stagnation” in the broadband initiative from the end of the Patrick administration through the early part of the Baker administration. Much of it, she admitted, had to do with the reluctance of private companies to commit the resources, which spawned the state to pony up more money.“It’s like trying to get electricity to rural America in the 1920s,” she says. “Internet service is a fundamental necessity in today’s world.”
(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Peter Larkin’s title.)