Shutesbury, New Salem in Charter’s plannedbroadband buildout

For the Bulletin
Thursday, March 16, 2017

WESTBOROUGH — A broadband proposal from Charter Communications could wire six more unserved towns, including New Salem and Shutesbury, at no cost to town taxpayers for the network build-out.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has qualified Charter Communications to receive a grant to design, build, operate, manage and maintain a broadband network service for up to 96 percent of all premises, at no cost to taxpayers. This would enable participating towns to avoid long-term debt or resulting property tax increases for internet service.

Also, MBI will cover 100 percent of the public cost outlined in Charter’s proposal.

Charter is a hybrid fiber-optic, coaxial cable company that already provides high-speed cable internet services to Orange, Athol and Belchertown, and could expand its network into neighboring towns.

“This is an extension of a network that Charter already has,” explained Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board of directors and special adviser from the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. He said a letter announcing the qualification of Charter’s proposal was sent to town boards on Monday.

The boards of selectmen for New Salem, Shutesbury, Egremont, Hancock, Monterey and Princeton will have to weigh in on whether they approve this broadband plan for their towns. MBI has asked them to hold a public informational meeting in which a Charter representative can present the plan to residents. MBI is also asking select boards to take a formal vote and notify MBI by March 24 if they want this build-out.

If a town approves the plan, the process to wire these towns would be started at the March 28 meeting of the MBI board of directors.

“While MBI will allow more time for towns to respond, the established timeline would allow for the quickest approval of a project, contracting and the start of a build-out in the upcoming season,” Larkin said.

Shutesbury’s Select Board and Broadband Committee met briefly Wednesday to discuss the issue.

“Our Select Board is scrutinizing it,” said Gayle Huntress, co-chairwoman of the Broadband Committee. “At this time, it doesn’t meet our requirements for 100 percent coverage.”

She said Charter’s proposal for 96 percent coverage would leave out about 40 households. She said the town is waiting for estimates from MBI or Charter on how much more it would cost for the town to have full coverage.

Charter says it would offer internet speeds consistent with its existing networks in Massachusetts, including its “triple play” package of telephone, TV, and high-speed internet. On Charter’s current website, prices start at $44.99 per month for basic internet only, going up to about $90 per month for a “triple play” of phone, TV and internet service.

“For each town, this proposal has numerous benefits, including zero cost to the town, expedited timeline for construction, and broadband connections that are competitive with connected towns throughout Massachusetts,” stated Tim Connelly, executive director/CEO of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the parent organization of the MBI.

“If each of the six towns opts in, that would cover roughly 25 percent of the remaining citizens in the unserved towns, which would mark significant progress toward our goal of closing the digital divide.

“We are pleased to offer these six towns the option of a zero-cost Last Mile solution that will put them directly into the construction pipeline,” Connelly said.

At the MBI board of director’s meeting last month, MBI leaders said any additional money needed to cover costs above the allocation for these six towns would be covered by the state and would not adversely impact funding for any other unserved town’s project under the Last Mile program.

MBI is also negotiating with other private sector broadband providers regarding their responses to the Private Provider Request for Proposals (RFPs). More negotiations will occur based on the decisions of each town in the process. Once the formal review, information gathering, and negotiation processes have concluded, similar confirmation letters will be sent to municipalities covered by the Private Provider proposals, which will allow them to review and make a decision on whether to proceed.