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In May 2017, Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito joined Berkshire County leaders to tour downtown small businesses that are benefiting from upgrades made by Charter Communications and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s (MBI) Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program. The program and investments in broadband infrastructure for towns unserved by high-speed internet are improving channels for businesses to connect with customers and providing digital and educational tools to residents and students.

Administration recommits to Western Massachusetts broadband

In May 2016, the Baker-Polito Administration introduced a new Last Mile leadership team and a new framework to accelerate implementation of broadband projects in unserved or underserved communities through a more flexible, community-based approach. Understanding the importance of high-speed internet access to our communities, the new appointments have brought new capacity, and collaborative, on-the-ground, engagement, to the Last Mile project.

“Ensuring our students, residents and businesses have access to high-speed, broadband internet is vital in today’s economy as we continue to work with municipalities to rapidly implement these last mile projects,” said Governor Charlie Baker. The new framework sets baseline performance standards for successful Last Mile projects, and empowers communities to develop a range of finance, operation and technology models for connecting residents to broadband service that meet performance standards.

Since then, the Baker-Polito Administration has supported efforts to expand broadband coverage to nine partially served towns, and approved grants to bring service to seven unserved towns: Alford, Otis, Warwick, Hinsdale, Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Mount Washington. The Administration is also assisting numerous towns in the evaluation of public-private partnership proposals resulting from an RFP issued by the MBI late last year.

Small businesses: “We all win from this technology”

For West Stockbridge, Hinsdale, and Lanesborough, the towns were without broadband until receiving a 2016 grant through the Last Mile program. When Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito paid a visit to the Berkshires in May 2017, “merchant after merchant in West Stockbridge shared stories of economic gains and improved customer service” thanks to broadband coming to town. (Berkshire Eagle)

“We have 10 rooms, if they’re all downloading stuff, the old system would crash and the next time people are deciding where to bring their kids, they’re going to go to a bigger hotel,” Bob Thibeault, owner of the Shaker Mill Inn, told MassLive.com. “So this broadband allows us to be competitive it keeps people in town. When they come here, they go the restaurants, they go to the shops, they go to the museums. We all win from this technology. It’s been a real good thing for us.”

And for Lisa Landry, co-owner of No. Six Depot coffee shop, the broadband “makes all of the difference. She told iBerkshires.com that “more businesses will come [to West Stockbridge] if they know they can rely on it.”

broadband-west-stockbridge

New flexible grant program to accelerate network construction

Recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the broadband gaps currently facing rural Massachusetts towns, the Baker-Polito Administration is empowering communities to pursue the solutions that are most appropriate for them. Broadband solutions should be flexible and responsive to local needs, regardless of whether local partners pursue municipally-owned networks, public-private partnerships, or alternative technologies.

“This new grant program will build on our reforms to the Last Mile broadband program, and speed the construction of locally-owned broadband networks,” said Lt. Governor Polito in announcing the new program. “Western and Central Massachusetts communities have told us they want a more nimble and more responsive Last Mile program. We have taken their feedback to heart, and through this new grant program, we will accelerate the pace of progress on local Last Mile broadband challenges.”

The program is modeled on the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development’s successful MassWorks Infrastructure Program, a flexible, competitive grant program that funds local infrastructure projects that unlock economic growth. In addition, EOHED and the MBI will continue to assist municipalities that wish to partner with private broadband providers, or explore alternative technologies. MBI will continue to provide design and engineering services to communities that prefer to work with the organization.

Since the launch of the program in March, a total of 18 towns, representing over 10,000 homes and businesses have received funding through this program to design, engineer, and construct a municipally-owned broadband network. [Round 1, Round 2, Round 3]

Hilltown leaders who once ‘had pitchforks out’ thank administration for broadband progress

In late June, Lt. Governor Polito and state officials convened roundtable discussions hosted by Shutesbury, Rowe and Ashfield, with participation from the towns of Colrain, Leyden, New Salem, Wendell, Charlemont, Heath, Cummington, Plainfield, Windsor and Chesterfield. The participating thirteen towns recently received grants under the administration’s new framework totaling $11.1 million to expedite local efforts.

Local hilltown leaders with grants in hand to build municipal broadband networks warmly thanked state officials on Tuesday, even while remarking that not so long ago, their mood toward Boston hadn’t been quite so friendly. (MassLive.com)

Rep. Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington) praised the administration for kick-starting a mired process. “This wouldn’t have happened without your leadership. Your reset made all the difference,” Kulik told Polito, MBI Director Peter Larkin, and Undersecretary Carolyn Kirk. “In particular, we’ve been helped by the one-stop infrastructure grants.”

Kulik quipped that only a year ago, “the pitchforks would have been out” for a visit from state officials in charge of broadband deployment.

And local residents are also expressing their gratitude. The Town of Shutesbury collected comments from residents and business owners, and presented them to Lt. Governor Polito. Here is a sampling:

“Thank you so much for making it possible to move forward with plans for broadband in Shutesbury! It will be much easier for my daughter to complete her assignments for school and to apply to colleges, it will improve my husband’s and my ability to work from home, and it will raise our property values.” – Barbara Russell

“For me personally I am looking forward to the better access to online education resources.” – Kerry Blanchard

“Thank you for releasing the funds that will make broadband internet in Shutesbury a reality at last! [We will finally] be able to compete on a level playing field with other small business-people in our sector.” – Anonymous

“Thank you for letting our residents fully participate in school, work, and life.” – Jen Davies

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