The prospects for providing residents and businesses in western Massachusetts with high-speed internet and other broadband services were significantly enhanced this spring when Governor Deval Patrick filed an IT bond bill with the state legislature that included $40 million for last-mile broadband infrastructure. The funds are to be administered by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which is completing a middle-mile broadband network to serve community anchor institutions in western and central Massachusetts, and to provide interconnection points for a future last-mile network. While the bond funds are only part of what is required to implement the last mile, a project estimated at $100 million, they can be leveraged to acquire the balance of the funding.
In response to this development, WiredWest is focusing our strategy on four key areas:
1) supporting the passage of the IT bond bill
2) partnering with MBI on developing the last-mile network
3) seeking the additional funds needed for its construction and operation
4) working closely with our member towns to assure local participation in the project
In support of this strategy, in September the WiredWest Board of Directors agreed unanimously that we retain David Epstein on a contingent-fee basis as Executive Director of WiredWest, reporting to the Executive Committee. David is a seasoned telecommunications executive who has worked with MBI and has an excellent relationship with its Director, Judy Dumont. You can read more about David’s background here.
IT Bond Bill: Members of the WiredWest Executive Committee testified in support of the bill, H.3330, before the Joint Committee on Regulatory Oversight on June 11, and before the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets on September 18, at which time they also submitted about 300 letters in support of the legislation from citizens, businesses, Select Boards and other organizations in our towns. Both committees reported the bill out favorably.
MBI Partnership: Because of MBI’s invaluable experience with building the middle mile and its expected role in administering the bond bill funds, WiredWest recognizes that it is vital we work with MBI on the last mile. David and members of the Executive Committee have met with MBI to discuss how our two organizations could partner on the last-mile project. While no formal commitments were made by MBI or MTC, our ideas were well received. Since then David has continued to interface with MBI on an ongoing basis, and regularly attends our Executive Committee and Board of Directors meetings.
Funding: The most likely source for most (but not all) of the remaining funding is the low-cost Broadband Loan Program of the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a cooperative of 42 rural towns, WiredWest believes we are the most appropriate entity to apply for those funds. The Executive Committee has developed a detailed project plan for completing the complex RUS application, and individual members of the Committee have begun work on their assignments under that plan.
Additionally, under David’s direction WiredWest is exploring how we might attract capital from the private sector. Both the bond bill and RUS funds must be used for construction, but not operation, of the network. A private sector partner potentially could provide those funds by connecting customers to the last mile and delivering services to them. Likewise, we are evaluating how we might utilize our authority under state law as a Municipal Lighting Plant Cooperative to issue bonds, and preliminarily discussing what financial stake, if any, our member towns may have in the project.
Town Participation: WiredWest is the entity designated by our member towns to bring broadband to their citizens and businesses. We continue working with our members to assure that, through WiredWest, their voice is heard in deliberations about the last-mile project and they play a substantive role in the development and operation of the network.
We will keep you posted on the developments over the next few months, which we expect to be significant, and which should give us a more definite time frame for delivering service.