Reprinted from the Berkshire Eagle
By Larry Parnass, lparnass@berkshireeagle.com

“Productive.” “Optimistic.”

After a year in the deep freeze, relations between state officials and broadband activists in Western Massachusetts appear to be thawing.

Leaders of WiredWest used the words above to describe their meeting last week with Carolyn Kirk, the state’s deputy secretary of housing and economic development.

Their session in Northampton came 15 months after a Massachusetts Broadband Institute policy reversal halted earlier collaboration. The gulf opened after a former MBI executive director urged town leaders not to enter into a regional broadband network agreement with WiredWest, citing financial issues.

Since then, tension has characterized relations between WiredWest loyalists and the state.

Last week’s summit is believed to be the first since talks broke down in early 2016 — a crisis that led Gov. Charlie Baker to impose a “pause” in planning for last-mile broadband coverage in unserved communities.

Jim Drawe of Cummington, chairman of WiredWest’s executive committee, praised the March 9 meeting with Kirk and other state officials.

“It was very refreshing to work with her,” Drawe said of Kirk, calling the former Gloucester mayor “decisive” and supportive.

“We left the meeting with the clear and common goal to move forward as soon as possible,” Drawe said.

Kirk said Wednesday she accepted an invitation from Marilyn Wilson, a Rowe Select Board member and former WiredWest delegate, to meet.

“I felt like the time was right to have a roll-up-your sleeves, collaborative discussion with those in the room,” Kirk said. “The input I received was very helpful.”

Steve Nelson of Washington, a former WiredWest leader who is now his town’s delegate to the group, said the session with Kirk was significant.

“It’s more than a courtesy meeting,” he said. “How do we just move forward at this point?”

“She’s certainly in a position to say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,'” he said of Kirk. “I’m hopeful.”

NEW POLICY

The session came days before the MBI board is expected to endorse a new policy that will allow towns building their own networks to gain access to millions of dollars earmarked for the design of those systems — money that MBI had reserved for its use, or as payments to outside vendors, as “professional services.”

But in a move that surprised town leaders, Timothy J. Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, announced Feb. 27 that the MBI would allow the money to be provided in grants to towns that build their networks.

“I want MBI adding value,” Connelly said at the time. “If we’re not adding value, I don’t want us there.”

Drawe said Kirk reiterated that commitment to provide design and engineering dollars as grants.

Kirk was joined by Peter Larkin and Bill Ennen, both of whom work for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. Also attending were Michael Knapik, the former state senator who oversees Baker’s Springfield office and by Michael Kaneb, a deputy counsel on the governor’s legal team.

Kirk said the group that met in Northampton worked to draft language for a grant program.

“I was a local elected official. I understand the dialogue,” she said.

In an interview the day before the meeting, Larkin was circumspect. Asked to describe the session’s agenda, he said simply: “To meet.”

But those across the table were clearly pleased with what transpired.

“They listened to our needs,” Charley Rose of Worthington, WiredWest’s vice chairman, said in a letter to delegates from member towns. He promised more information soon. “We know that you are likely anxious for details and timelines.”

TOWN REACTIONS

In interviews with The Eagle, town representatives praised the MBI’s decision to free up additional money as grants. The dollars will be available to communities that build and own their networks, not those opting for private cable system expansions.

“It’s been like the spring breakup of the ice,” said Douglas Mcnally, a broadband committee member from Windsor.

McNally, who said he met recently with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, said he believes change is coming from the top down.

“The governor is adamant about the fact that he wants this to happen soon,” Mcnally said of the last-mile program.

Robert Lichter, chairman of the Municipal Light Plant board in Alford, said the release of professional services money will be a boon to his town’s plan to build its own network, a decision made a year ago in the midst of the MBI pause.

“It will go a substantial way further in enabling it,” he said.

Alford is among many towns eager for specifics on how the grant program will work, Lichter said. “We just don’t know what the mechanism is going to be.”

The town is moving ahead, having received bids from network builders within its price range. All bidders have been interviewed and a decision for Alford could come by the end of the month.

“With the additional money, that will make things flexible,” Lichter said. They hope to light up the system by this time next year. “There’s tremendous enthusiasm in town for this. It’s what energizes us.”

Nelson, the Washington resident who manages his town’s Municipal Light Plant, said he believes the added funding is deserved.

“A 50-50 split is a much more rational decision,” he said of cost sharing between towns and the state. Until now, the expectation has been that towns will pay two-thirds the cost of a network.

He estimated that as many as 15 towns would opt to accept the grants and pursue construction of their own networks, many of them working with Westfield Gas + Electric.

Nelson said he will be happy to see the MBI board enshrine the new funding, an item on its next agenda.

“I’d like to see it in writing,” he said. “Towns like mine would like to have control over that money and get this thing done.”

Kirk, the deputy secretary of housing and economic development, said that if both the MBI and MassTech boards approve the grant program, it will be days, not weeks or months, before funding is available to towns.

“We will be ready to roll out in short order,” she said.

A year ago, Kimberly Longey, a longtime member of Plainfield’s broadband effort, was trying unsuccessfully to get WiredWest and the MBI back to the table.

“We’re very excited about that news and we want more news,” she said of planned grants.

“What we really need is the ability to have self-determination in this process,” she said. “We’re cautiously optimistic. We think this is a good step. I have a feeling that things are lining up.”

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.