May 10 meeting between Western Mass Town Broadband representatives and the Governor

Attendees:

Governor Baker, Lt Gov Polito, Secretary Jay Ash, Carolyn Kirk, (Deputy Secretary of Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development), Sean Cronin (Senior Deputy Commissioner of Division of Local Services [part of DOR]), Peter Larkin (MBI), Bill Ennen (MBI), Ed Donnelly (MBI), Linda Dunlavy (MBI).

Our legislative delegation was in attendance: Stan Rosenberg, Ben Downing, Steve Kulik, Smitty Pignatelli, and Paul Mark.

Invited local reps: Toby Gould (Charlemont), Kimberly Longey (Plainfield), Charley Rose (Worthington), Michael DeChiara (Shutesbury), Doug Tanner (Wendell), Steve Harris (Middlefield), Thomas Powers (Leverett), Joe Boudreau (Worthington).

The meeting was officially one hour long, 10:00­-11:00 am at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Governor Baker and Senator Rosenberg left promptly at 11:00, most of the attendees stayed for another hour.

We know that the Governor has publicly promised to get this project back on track; and to that end, he increased MBI’s team to include Peter Larkin and Bill Ennen. They will now manage the project and expedite implementation of the newest last mile plan. Larkin and Ennen will report directly to Jay Ash, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development. Ash was in attendance but did not speak.

Governor Baker introduced Peter Larkin, who presented a powerpoint of the Governor’s plan.

In the meeting, WiredWest representatives emphasized 1) town choice/self determination: we need to be treated with respect and as partners in designing the solutions for our region; 2) fiber to the home is the best and only proven technological choice and best use of public resources: and the preferred choice for most towns; 3) regionalization offers strong advantages in economies and sustainability and enables a greater number of towns to afford a FTTH solution; and, 4) the time to act is now: no more studies, no backsliding on issues that were discussed, examined and put to rest during the past 8 years.

Below are some takeaways on Funding and Finance. There were some yellow cards (not quite red flags), but substantial caution is warranted.

  • MBI finances are under review; when pressed directly by Ben Downing, there was no clarity about the status of funding or specific town allocations. It is fair to assume funding allocations will change.
  • There is strong emphasis on private sector involvement (large to small companies are listed as potential partners). This is a catch 22: Private sector involvement means debt service payments will need to come from taxes and higher cost of service, putting towns at greater financial risk.
  • There is a range of project models offered, the closest to WiredWest is called “Multi-­Municipal Network.” This is more of a consortium approach, incorporating outsourced operations and flexible withdrawal by towns with their assets. The Governor stated clearly he does not believe a grouping of 20 or 30 towns is practical and would be able to agree on critical decisions over time.

Despite WiredWest’s experience to the contrary, the Governor is convinced that larger towns would be unwilling to subsidize small towns, and there would be inevitable breakdowns along those lines. (He referenced healthcare as an example of this type of breakdown.) He believes that smaller groupings of towns make sense, but did acknowledge that towns should be in the driver’s seat of determining if they want to take a regional approach.

This indicates a need for the larger towns to convey both their support and reasoning behind that support as far up the chain of command as possible. One of our main tasks is to make it very clear that subsidization is NOT an issue. This topic was discussed at the 4/29 Board meeting where Beckett and Shutesbury weighed in on why a larger regional model is their town’s preferred approach.  (For an in-depth discussion and analysis, see The Case Regionalization. This report clearly shows that larger towns will not be subsidizing the smaller ones .)

  • The plan gives a strong indication of gate­keeping by the Dept. of Revenue. Sean Cronin, Senior Deputy Commissioner of Division of Local Services (part of DOR), will have major influence over the state’s determination of a town’s “readiness to proceed.” Bill Ennen, Peter Larkin, and MBI staff assessments will provide input, with Cronin being the decider. An unfavorable determination would most likely result in denial of state funds to a town. The criteria for “readiness to proceed” has not been shared. With so much power vested in one entity, we should consider a working group of finance committee members to actively participate in crafting whatever financial litmus test is created.

We are certainly encouraged that the two new staffers appear to have clear direction towards forward movement, and we are all looking forward to working with them. There is a lot of information, however, that needs to flow in order for this newest iteration of the last mile plan to be trusted or embraced. Actions speak louder than words. Outcomes are more important than intentions.

The Governor stated that he expected quarterly progress reports from Larkin and that he has gotten the message that this needs to move as quickly and expeditiously as possible.  It was stated that meetings would be held in western Mass. Ennen will work out of western Mass. and Larkin will commute back and forth.

There was no overt support voiced for WiredWest or a truly regional approach from any government official, including our delegation. The Governor did say he wasn’t necessarily opposed to WW, as long as it met their criteria.

As the meeting was winding down, Ben Downing insisted on take­aways. Here are the ones that emerged:

  • Contact person is Bill Ennen at ennen@masstech.org
  • Peter Larkin agreed to meet with WiredWest and said he would do that in western Mass.
  • MBI committed to open communication
  • Each town needs to appoint one person with the authority to speak for their town
  • MBI wants corrections of the MBI data (send to Bill Ennen)
  • MBI wants a recommendations for information that should be added to the MBI web site

In a closing conversation with Kimberly Longey and Charley Baker, Peter Larkin agreed to meet with WiredWest in the coming weeks. WiredWest will be suggesting possible dates for this meeting. It is expected that the meeting will take place after Memorial Day.

So, we need everyone affected by the lack of broadband in Western Mass will to stay focused and vigilant. We very well may need to speak out publicly and in large numbers again. And if we do, we will need to again prove popular support, but even more strongly this time.