Lee — Drive by the Sandisfield library at night, even during a snowstorm, and the parking lot is filled with parents waiting in idling cars while their children do homework inside because it’s the only place in town with a high speed Internet connection.
Sitting across a table from three Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI) officials at the Lee Town Hall courthouse Friday (January 20), this was the picture painted by Sandisfield town manager and Selectboard chair Alice Boyd, who added that this is the case in all kinds of weather.
Boyd said she wanted to demonstrate the “sense of urgency” about the need for an expedited broadband push for four very rural towns in this south Berkshire County area. Some Sandisfield residents can get an adequate connection with Verizon DSL, but not all are near a box and Verizon limits those customers, including one who is the chairman of the broadband committee. And many Sandisfield residents simply can’t afford an expensive HughesNet satellite dish.
“I get more calls about broadband than the roads,” she went on, “and many of those calls are from people hoping to purchase a home…we cut half of our highway staff this year…so we didn’t have to increase our taxes…we have all these seasonal homeowners who could stay and work there…the taxes still went up.”
Indeed, Sandisfield’s 90 miles of country roadway are no joke, and the slow pace of financial help promised to towns for fiber optic networks is alarming everyone from real estate agents to school teachers to business owners, who are seeing the effects of a failing regional economy.
The mission of the MBI is to make sure the whole state is operating with this 21st century technology. It was given $40 million to dole out to all the towns that big cable companies won’t provide service to because of so few customers on so many road miles.
In an operation called the “Middle Mile,” the MBI placed fiber connection hubs in municipal buildings–like the Sandisfield library–in these rural towns, but the final wire-up plan that will get towns lit and running is just getting off the ground now after almost a decade of foot dragging, high-priced consulting and, some say, bungling.
The MBI calls it the “Last Mile” and, while there has been good progress over the last six months, it’s too slow for towns where the lack of broadband is hurting real estate values and generally preventing an expansion of the tax base.
“[Broadband] is the number one driver of our economic plan,” Boyd added.
So, out of sheer desperation, the towns of Sandisfield, New Marlborough, Monterey and Tolland decided to share the pain by hiring an attorney who helped them navigate a legal pathway that would allow the towns to bid out the construction of a fiber optic network and sign a 15-year contract with a service provider to operate it. The towns would each do this through their Municipal Light Plants (MLP) created for this purpose. The MBI fussed over this a bit, saying it might not be legal. But at Friday’s meeting with selectboard members from the towns and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), MBI deputy director Ed Donnelly said the MBI would not interfere with the service aspect.
“We do not want to be the procurement police…the MLP police,” he said, adding that the MBI’s main role is “fiduciary…to do what makes sense.”
But the MBI is trying to help with this, he added; a procurement workshop is lined up for next week.
The four towns are “confident,” fired up and ready to submit a readiness plan to the MBI, Boyd said, noting that the towns have two state-sanctioned procurement managers. She further said the towns could turn a contract around in 30 days.
“The only stumbling block may be securing funding from you folks,” she added.
Once submitted, Donnelly said the plan would then be vetted by both the MBI and Massachusetts Technology Collaborative boards, which both meet monthly. Upon approval, the construction allowance would be released.
“What is available for engineering funds?” Boyd asked.
And it was at this moment the curtain was ripped back as MBI board chair Peter Larkin explained, in a very circuitous manner, that engineering money is no longer in the offing — just construction funds.
“That really puts the burden back on the towns in terms of the tax base…it adds costs,” said Monterey Selectboard member Cliff Weiss.
Larkin went on to say that the original financial model was based on a “Cartesian” system, and now the Baker administration sees this as a “not one size fits all” situation.
That has been the new catch phrase for the administration’s approach; Baker’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development said the same thing in Great Barrington last week. This is because, Larkin said, each of the 44 towns have different needs, and this Last Mile project is really more of a $70 million affair.
That’s $30 million short. Larkin said “creativity” was needed to stretch that $40 million.
Boyd said $1.2 million was the estimate for Sandisfield’s bonding, though Boyd said this new path forward might not require debt service at all. The MBI construction grant to the town is $620,000. Boyd later told the Edge that, with 90 miles of roadway, stringing fiber could hit the $5.5 million mark, which the town can’t shoulder; that’s why the towns are going out to bid with companies that will invest in the build-out.
Pignatelli, who had organized this meeting, asked Larkin and MBI implementation liason Bill Ennen if there were savings because some towns like West Stockbridge had gone with Charter Communications, which was given a $1.6 million grant from the MBI to upgrade several towns to broadband.
The question never really got answered. But Monterey Selectboard member Ken Basler said these four towns, whose representatives have been meeting once a week for 18 months, “should be rewarded for hard work with extra dollars.”
“We have broken the mold,” he added, noting that the towns are sharing other services, as well.
This municipal sharing of services is one of Pignatelli’s passions, something he’s been encouraging towns to do for a long time. Even the Baker administration is thrilled by it, and both Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito came to Great Barrington last year to praise towns that signed a compact to do this whenever possible.
This opens the question of whether, as Basler suggested, the four towns will be rewarded by the state in concrete ways on this make-or-break issue. Pignatelli asked if there might be some “bonus money” for towns that are collaborating.
“The infrastructure of these towns are crumbling and this is a key piece of the revitalization of these communities,” he added.
Ennen said he was “pleased” by the way the four towns came together. “It’s compelling,” he said. “It gives you the flexibility you need and it helps MBI…”
Boyd later said she thought this was “a very positive meeting.” She noted that former MBI executive director Eric Nakajima had “insisted” towns own their own fiber assets. Now, she said, a company with “expertise” will do that, the towns won’t have to “go into significant debt,” and, once there is a winning bidder, “work can begin immediately.”
Pignatelli was also happy. “This has been 10 years plus in the making,” he said. “Here we are in January 2017 and finally starting to see some movement.” He asked how much longer it would take for towns to be “truly lit up.”
It all depends, Donnelly said, but the two-year build-out is the “most optimistic” estimate.
“Can the MBI have a greater or equal sense of urgency?” Pignatelli asked.
“We feel it, too,” Donnelly replied.
“I see how frustrating this is,” Larkin said. “The marketplace is making its own determination.” He acknowledged that government is slow.
Government isn’t always so great about showing us where the money goes, either, and, in a moment that felt like everyone in the room was holding their porridge bowls in the orphanage, people started to ask how much was left of the $40 million the state earmarked to get this region into the 21st century.
“Can we have financial statements about what’s been spent?” asked Jim Drawe, chair of regional broadband cooperative WiredWest, which the state hasn’t been particularly warm toward though it has pulled more than 30 towns into a collaborative effort. Drawe and about 20 others had come to listen in on the meeting. Larkin said the construction allocations are on the MBI website and annual reports.
“We still have money in there…we still have enough,” Larkin assured everyone while reminding them that the old $40 million model was pretty much out the window.
“Every dollar of the towns’ construction allocation is still there,” Donnelly said, noting that it amounts to $22 million. But he also said that money “becomes a moving target for other money” because of the differences in the needs of each town. He said they would know more about that soon.
While the towns are chugging along with bad Internet and terrifying economic projections, it likely hasn’t been so easy for Larkin and Ennen, dropped into this fray last year by Baker, mid-scramble.
But Larkin appeared relieved by the way this meeting went.
“I’m gonna get out of here alive,” he said.