Mt. Washington — After a worrisome “pause” by the Baker-Polito administration on $40 million to bring high speed Internet to rural western Massachusetts, this tiny town scored big this week when the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) approved a $230,000 grant to build a fiber optic network here.
Mt. Washington, with a population of around 150 full-time residents, is the second town in Western Massachusetts to get MBI “last mile” funding for a “fiber to home” project. The first grant for $129,000 went to Middlefield on June 8, the only town in the state through which a state highway does not pass.
Mt. Washington Selectboard member Brian Tobin told the Edge he was “pleased,” especially “with a lot of doubt throughout Berkshire County that the Governor was going to have a longer hold on releasing those funds. I think that they heard from enough towns that we really need this funding to be released, and because we had all our ducks in a row, we were first ones out of the gate to get funding.”
In a prepared statement, MBI spokesperson Brian Noyes said the funds will go towards constructing a “fiber-optic network that will pass 96 percent of residences in the town. Of the households in Mount Washington, over 60 percent have agreed to take service on the proposed network, a fact the Town confirmed through a program, which gathered a signed agreement from each subscriber committing to three years of data and phone service along with a $300 deposit.”
The town approved NextGen Telecom Services Group to do the construction, after which the town will own its network infrastructure and eventually look for a network operator and Internet service provider.
Selectboard Chair Jim Lovejoy thanked the MBI and the administration, as well as Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) “for their efforts over many years, without which the MBI and the opportunity we have to build this state-of-the art municipal infrastructure would not exist.”
The town anticipates capital expenditures at around $700,000. The town had previously approved $250,000 from its stabilization fund and borrowing of $450,000 for up to 20 years through the ‘State House Notes’ program. Pre-subscriptions from residents captured another $29,950.
“As one of the Commonwealth’s smallest communities, we applaud the officials and citizens of Mt. Washington for the years of hard work which resulted in a well-crafted plan, one which will bring a municipally-owned fiber-optic network to their community,” said Peter Larkin in a prepared statement. Larkin is Board Chair of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and Special Advisor to the Secretary of Housing and Economic Development for the Last Mile project.
“This is the fourth Last Mile project and the second municipal ‘Fiber to the Home’ network the MBI has supported to date,” Larkin added. “We’re pleased by this progress and are hopeful that through our more aggressive, face-to-face work with un-served communities, we can move forward additional sustainable projects that will close the digital divide for residents and businesses in these communities.”
MBI had also given the town a $5,000 Broadband Planning Assistance Grant in 2015.
The project should be completed by mid-to-late 2017, according to Tobin. Telephone pole surveys and other pre-construction work comes next, and when done, residents will have voice and high-sped data service, with the possibility of future video service, according to the MBI.
The town will administer its network and town officials will oversee it, with no additional costs, according to town officials.
“This grant is another example of the renewed energy at MBI to deliver a viable last-mile broadband solution to the unserved communities of Western Massachusetts,” said Sen. Downing, who worked to help the town gain help from the Legislature. “It is the result of the efforts of determined and dedicated citizens to establish and deliver their own 21st-century network to their community.”
Rep. Pignatelli was also more than pleased. “I am ecstatic and proud that Mt. Washington, the third smallest town in our Commonwealth, has taken tremendous leadership and is moving forward with building their own fiber network,” he said. “Mt. Washington’s success shows that it is possible, with support from the MBI, for even our smallest communities to have access to quality, high-speed internet. I look forward to seeing all of the small towns in Western Massachusetts light up like Mount Washington.”
Tobin told the Edge he hoped the town could serve as an example “for other towns who have given up hope, or for which WiredWest [broadband cooperative] wasn’t a practical solution.
“We have a solid business model,” Tobin added. “And if anyone has any questions they should call us. An independently owned town fiber network is definitely doable and in the end it’s going to deliver results faster.”