An Eagle Eye Team Investigation | Broadband in the Berkshires: The digital divide

Eagle Eye Team Report: Broadband expansion languishes in Berkshires

Missteps, challenges mar Boston promises to bridge digital divide

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Nearly 10 years ago, Gov. Deval Patrick came to Becket with a promise of information-age equity: broadband internet service across Western Massachusetts. By 2011, he said.

And yet the “digital divide” persists.

Closing the broadband gap in rural areas not served by private companies has already taken longer than the nation’s quest to put a man on the moon. The presidency of Barack Obama came and went with the goal of near-universal broadband service unrealized.

In his State of the State address on Jan. 24, Gov. Charlie Baker pointed to steps his administration has taken since spring to accelerate work by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. The governor boasted of “more progress on local broadband access than in the last five years.”

Even so, Baker noted that “too many communities in Western Mass. still don’t have access to this essential service.”

And now his team is encountering new headwinds as it tests the willingness of private companies to fill the breach.


STATUS CHECK: Here’s where Berkshire County’s 19 ‘unserved’ internet towns stand (Related story)

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST | S01 Episode 14: Inside the broadband meltdown


Why has it taken so long?

Interviews by The Eagle Eye Team paint a complex picture of missed signals and wrong turns within government, high construction costs and a fact that bedevils all projects: lots of road miles with too few houses on them.

Years were spent constructing a “middle mile” fiber network that helped public buildings obtain broadband internet service, a system that was supposed to entice private enterprise to go after unserved households in areas they’d ignored. Not enough attention was paid to the “last-mile” dilemma, some MBI board members admit.

And then months were lost in 2015 and 2016 amid confusion and sharp disagreement over whether taxpayer dollars should be invested in a nonprofit regional solution pitched by WiredWest.

The delay has been costly. Business deals fell through for lack of broadband, interviews found. Real estate listings for homes without high-speed internet languished. Home-based entrepreneurs struggled to explain why they were slow to reply to emails.

And high school students risked falling behind classmates because their homes lay stuck in the digital divide.

Even as they waited for modern internet connections, unserved towns saw that divide widen, as homes and businesses that had previously received broadband through what’s known as DSL service from Verizon dropped off the map after a property sale. Some discovered that Verizon had decided not to allow new DSL connections.

While state government worked to right a technological wrong, some saw another problem on the horizon.

By pulling back during 2016 from a broad goal of providing fiber-optic cable to homes and businesses, the broadband effort could be setting itself up for consumer disappointment, they said. And it could hobble economic activity throughout Western Massachusetts.

Fiber is considered “future proof,” in that it can serve an accelerating demand to move increasing amounts of data, while other forms, including the coaxial cable laid in some communities by private companies, is more limited.

In the town of Monterey, desperation sent one disappointed resident, Mark Makuc, running into the road. The driver of a Verizon service truck had just told Makuc’s wife he could not hook the family up to DSL.

Makuc had heard that six times before — and was fed up. He chased after the driver.

“I said, ‘Please, just do what you need to do … this [makes] seven times I’ve been through this,’” said Makuc, who is his town’s library director. The technician relented and helped him.

Meantime, as Verizon was ratcheting down its DSL service, other players saw opportunities. Several private companies “cherry picked” customers and provided them broadband service, but it left the most isolated homes and businesses even less appealing to a private-sector partner.

EARLY APPLAUSE

Accolades were flowing in September 2012 for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. A national telecom group named it “community broadband organization of the year.” The next month, the Broadband World Forum piled on, nominating MBI for its “broadband infovision award.”

But that fall, the problem the institute had already worked for four years to close still left tens of thousands unable to get high-speed internet service in homes and businesses in more than half of Berkshire County’s 32 communities.

Today, the divide remains nearly as stark, with most of the original 19 “unserved” Berkshires towns still in the dark.

“Infovision,” it seems, didn’t change reality.

That is particularly true for geographically large towns with small populations — which describes much of western Massachusetts.

The 19 unserved towns had a population of 20,091 as of the 2010 census, representing 15.3 percent of the population of 131,219 at the time.

“The Berkshire County population has been grotesquely misserved,” said Holly Ketron, a Tyringham resident who has worked to bring broadband to her community.

It isn’t only people who live in unserved towns who feel that way.

Linda Dunlavy, a member of the MBI board of directors, says she’s seen four governors work to solve this problem. “Every administration had to figure out the depth of the broadband problem in their own way,” said Dunlavy, who is executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield. “This is still a difficult problem with no easy answers. Where do we go from here? That’s the biggest question.”

After repeated delays in broadband progress going back years, and in a prior governor’s term, Dunlavy says she understands the disappointment. “People are always scared that the other shoe is going to drop. I think that everyone feels that it has happened. And every time that happens, people are less forgiving.”

Donald Dubendorf, a Williamstown attorney who has been working to bring broadband to the Berkshires for decades, formerly with Berkshire Connect, said many factors confound bringing broadband to a rural area, which he calls a moral issue.

“There are no magic wands,” said Dubendorf, who also serves on the MBI board, “and not enough public dollars to behave as if there were magic wands.”

“It’s always been a question of affordability,” he said. “I know how intractable the challenges have been. I have had to learn patience. I may have to work on this another 20 years.”

He adds, “Has any of this been perfect? No. I’ve had to double-back on myself.”

HANDS-ON HELP

Today, a flurry of MBI activity since spring is pushing to close most of the divide in the next several years — under leadership installed by Baker and led in part by former Pittsfield state Rep. Peter Larkin, a special adviser to the state secretary of housing and economic development.

Larkin’s team is racing to show enough progress to blunt the criticism that has dogged the MBI effort for years.

“We’re making progress, albeit frustratingly slow,” Larkin told The Eagle last week. 

“People of good will are trying to help each other get to the goal line, which is broadband connectivity. And I know how frustrating that is. This administration has taken this issue on, we’re making progress.”

Already, private cable companies lured in by government subsidies are wiring towns like Hinsdale, West Stockbridge and Lanesborough. Here, Charter Communications received a grant of $1.6 million to provide service.

Paul Sieloff, Lanesborough’s town manager, marvels at the change from Charter.

“Now, finally, they’ve decided to install broadband. … It changes people’s lives,” Sieloff said.

Communities up and down Berkshire County are getting hands-on help from an MBI representative, Bill Ennen, as the Republican administration in Boston emphasizes private-sector solutions and puts around $20 million on the table to entice participation by private companies like Charter and Comcast.

“We have a lot of resources dedicated to this, a lot of eyes on it,” said Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of housing and economic development and a former Gloucester mayor who now ultimately oversees the project on behalf of the governor. “It’s not going to be overlooked in any way, shape or form.”

Utility trucks have been out inspecting poles. Towns are reaching for private partners in a small flood of proposals.

While actual broadband service remains years away for many, residents of some unserved towns have reason to hope the final steps of “last mile” broadband connections are being taken.

“They’re on the ground every day hooking people up,” Mark Webber, West Stockbridge’s town administrator, said late last year. “They are actively connecting customers as we speak. We’ve come a long way from ‘never’ to ‘18 months.’”

For other towns, though, it’s still a waiting game.

“Two years ago, we were told that it would be two years before we had service,” said Douglas Mcnally, the Windsor Select Board member who leads his town’s broadband committee. “We want to just get started. It’s a mess.”

Mcnally, an educational consultant, knows of a local business owner who sold out and moved to a town with broadband. When Mcnally must send a large data file, he drives down the mountain to the Dalton Library or to a business in Pittsfield with Wi-Fi.

In coming months, officials in towns that have been waiting for broadband will continue to move through the MBI’s revamped planning system. 

Already, at least 10 have finished a “readiness” process that dug into or finished the task of surveying utility poles that are the backbone of a last-mile project. Others are discussing offers to sign on as customers of a private network.

Rather than the large regional network earlier proposed by WiredWest, the new landscape suggests a patchwork of solutions.

MONEY SPENT

Nearly $90 million in state and federal funding was spent for fiber-optic lines to be strung through the region, laying down the “middle mile” that brought high-speed connectivity to public buildings like libraries, schools and town halls.

From there, the “last mile” to reach homes and businesses — which unfortunately was far more than a mile — was supposed to be almost an afterthought.

Instead, the “last mile” financial math remained a show-stopper.

The $40 million the state allocated to the problem fell far short of the estimated $110 million it would take to get fiber-optic cable to all homes in unserved communities.

That left the effort $70 million short in the 44 communities the MBI sought to help. That expense proved fatal, said Larkin. 

“Asking some of these towns to come up with the two-thirds of a commitment toward the project was a real, tall challenge. And in fact in some cases impossible,” said Larkin, who also chairs the board of the MBI. The institute is part of the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

“So let’s reset in reality. And that’s where we are now,” Larkin said. “I call it an ‘eyes wide open’ process.”

While presented as pragmatic by today’s MBI leaders, the shift confounded leaders of WiredWest, the nonprofit cooperative that emerged in 2011 to lead a regional approach to bringing the state’s rural communities into the internet age.

“They keep changing the game plan,” said Bob Labrie of Goshen, a board member of WiredWest. That organization was formed to build, own and operate a fiber-optic network serving 100 percent of addresses in member communities.

WiredWest’s efforts received a body blow Dec. 1, 2015, when the MBI, led at that time by Eric Nakajima of Amherst, advised municipal leaders not to accept an arrangement with WiredWest that would have given the cooperative ownership of the asset — the network — and left towns holding debt on construction funding.

“We all scratch our heads asking why they changed. What caused them to change this time?” said Labrie. “The vision that WiredWest had in 2011 is very different than the paths that we’re taking now. I am of the opinion that the state should be helping its residents to provide them with what they want, and right now I don’t feel like the state is working that way with us.”

Labrie and other WiredWest backers say a regional approach would have worked best, since it could have connected towns across a wider geographic area and built in system strength, particularly in the ability to cross town lines to reach “edge” properties that might otherwise be orphaned.

But Kirk and Larkin maintain that towns that could not afford significant investments in a broadband network were unlikely to see progress. They also argue that MBI’s strategic shift last spring, and the hiring of Ennen as MBI’s “last-mile implementation liaison,” is providing on-the-ground support to towns that enables volunteer town leaders to understand the stakes and make decisions.

“The biggest change is the on-the-ground support in Berkshire County and in western Mass. through the community liaison,” Kirk said. “To really help them understand how challenging this is, and guide them through a series of choices that they’re working with us to come to some conclusions on.”

CHANGING COURSE

Across Berkshire County today, Ennen is working with town officials who are shopping a new set of choices on broadband provided by the MBI.

Last spring, the institute adjusted its course dramatically as it brought Larkin and Ennen on board. That came after Baker called for a pause on the institute’s work, following its clash with WiredWest over the cooperative’s business model.

Kirk and Larkin declined to assign fault to earlier MBI leaders, with Kirk saying, “We can’t speak to a timeframe prior to the last two years. I haven’t spent a lot of time researching so far back in history.”

The governor has affirmed the MBI’s conclusion that towns must own their own broadband networks. The WiredWest plan called for them to have fractional ownership through a regional agreement.

What had been a goal of providing fiber-optic connectivity to all residences in unserved communities was scaled back last spring to a pledge to connect 96 percent of homes, and not only by fiber, which provides the fastest connection speeds.

The MBI instead rolled out a new menu of choices designed to be more affordable for towns. At the same time, the institute opened the door wide to private-sector involvement by allocating $22 million in grants that individual towns can use as they wish to help attract providers.

The money for the towns is drawn from the state’s original $40 million commitment to extending broadband. At the same time, MBI reserved $18 million of the original funding to pay for technical service that it will provide to towns, including work to design broadband systems.

It’s no longer clear that $18 million will be enough. When the MBI requested proposals last fall from companies bidding to take on the design and engineering work, the responses were “prohibitively expensive,” Larkin said.

That funding gap is playing a role in the agency’s shift, now underway, to have the towns themselves enter into contracts for network construction. Even so, the MBI plans to provide detailed blueprints to each town that seeks to build an independent network.

While Larkin says the change will not force significant delays, his January letter to town officials apologized to those far enough along in the process to be affected.

Dubendorf, the Williamstown lawyer and MBI board member, said funding limits have always been a stumbling block. And on this, the relative affluence of towns will be a factor — and one that troubles him.

“There are class elements to this and I don’t like the notion of second-class citizenship. There is a moral quotient to the investment of public money that we ignore to our peril,” Dubendorf said. “There will be some towns that have no options other than more public capital, and I don’t mean locally sourced.”

But two area lawmakers, state Reps. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, say it’s unlikely that the Legislature would be willing to provide more money for the last-mile effort.

Still, Kulik said he would push for more money if the governor agreed to support it, since it is the governor’s office that must release such funding.

Kulik said he agrees with some town officials calling on the MBI to free up more of the design money for use in the network construction projects.

“The allocation of the $40 million … should go to the towns in full, that they should be able to use any way they wish to,” Kulik said of the broadband funding. He is among a group of legislators that has been holding almost weekly conference calls with MBI staff to keep up to date on broadband projects.

Pignatelli said towns working to obtain broadband must keep other capital needs in mind. “You don’t want to handicap your town financially,” he said. “Each town has a tough decision to make. It comes down to what [they can] afford.”

On the whole, he feels the MBI is going a good job.

BEHIND THE DELAYS

Aside from money and vexing geography, other factors are cited as causing delays. Some point to the complexity of the middle-mile network, known officially as MB123.

Dunlavy, the MBI board member who has worked on broadband issues for 20 years, said the middle mile project became “all-consuming” for the state agency, to the detriment of planning for the last-mile side.

“There should have been more thinking about that,” she said. “There really wasn’t a good plan in place. I feel that MBI lost its way on that.”

Dunlavy also notes the time lost fighting over the merits of the WiredWest proposal.

“We were on the path to do the right thing,” Dunlavy said of the WiredWest regional network concept, “but the right thing was so difficult. It became this circular morass of how do we get through this? It was an important year, but a very circular year.”

Some who’ve pondered the slow advance of broadband also speak of a cultural difference between paid officials in eastern Massachusetts and the volunteers who comprise town governments in rural areas.

Kimberly Longey, an elected official in Plainfield and co-founder of WiredWest, notes that two sides came together to solve the broadband problem.

On one side: bureaucrats in Boston who tend to use a top-down approach to decision-making and rely on paid consultants.

And on the other: grassroots volunteers with day jobs who embrace bootstraps solutions, understand the will of their communities and believe in self-determination.

“It really comes down to culture and personality,” she said. “I think it was a mismatch from the beginning.”

Longey, who is chief operating officer of Free Press, a nonprofit in Northampton and Washington, D.C., worked for weeks in late 2015 and early 2016 to repair the divide between the MBI and WiredWest, but was unsuccessful.

“I truly believe the Boston folks want to solve the problem, but I think the cogs in the middle clog up the works,” she said.

ROLE OF PRIVATE SECTOR

Kirk, the deputy secretary of housing and economic development, said the MBI took a key step this fall when it issued a request for proposals from well-established private companies to come into unserved towns.

Kirk said the idea was to see who’s out there in the private sector, ready and willing to be part of the solution, with a little financial encouragement through public-sector grants.

The MBI set a threshold of $100 million in yearly revenues and five years of experience.

That meant only two would qualify, Charter and Comcast, but a handful of other proposals is now being studied. Larkin said the MBI is negotiating with the private firms to see what’s possible.

But it’s already clear that cost remains a problem. One of the proposals, from Crocker Communications, asks households to kick in up to $3,000 to be connected and proposes use of a micro-loan program. Responses from one of the big cable players also asked for significant additional public underwriting.

Reach is a problem as well. The Charter and Comcast proposals only ID’d a handful of towns, with some overlap.

Kulik, the Worthington Democrat, said the effort revealed that the private sector is not going to rescue the broadband drive.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, says he met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito in Heath during the official pause in the project and heard her outline hopes for the private sector.

“I told her I didn’t think this would be a fruitful endeavor,” said Mark, who believes he is the only Massachusetts lawmaker to live in a place that lacks both broadband and cell service. “I thought it was the wrong approach to take.”

“There became a focus on doing it more cheaply and with a private-sector solution,” Mark said. He prefers a regional solution that keeps ownership in public hands.

David Kulp, a member of the broadband committee in the Franklin County town of Ashfield, has read the proposals from private companies and doesn’t see a realistic solution for his community, with its 81 miles of roads.

None of the qualifying proposals offered to connect Ashfield. The Crocker plan does, but at an additional cost to households. Already, Ashfield voters agreed to raise their taxes to provide the town’s share of network construction.

“The private provider responses are not realistic options for the state or the towns because they’re asking for three times the amount of money the state’s offering,” Kulp said. “There’s a tremendous frustration with the state right now from the Ashfield town officials.”

Calls are being heard in town, he said, for Ashfield to go ahead and build on its own, then seek to claw back promised money from the state. “Every year that we wait, the costs go up and the pain of not having broadband continues.”

OUTSIDE RECOMMENDATIONS

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has studied the issue nationally from his base in Minnesota.

Governments can and should build their own broadband networks, he said.

“Getting high-quality internet is not the first time we’ve done this. We electrified the entire country and did it in a fiscally responsible manner,” he said.

Rather than start with a middle mile, Mitchell thinks Massachusetts should have fostered last-mile connections with alternative ways of connecting to distant trunk lines on the internet. And when it comes to local town networks, he believes people should think of what’s best locally.

“Do you want that money [for service] going to Philadelphia or staying in your community?” he asked.

Those local networks, according to another national expert, should employ fiber.

“If you’re going to spend to invest, why don’t you make it future-proof?” asked Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber-to-the-Home Council North America, a nonprofit that promotes use of fiber.

David Talbot, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, said that only fiber, which moves data at the speed of light, is versatile enough to remain relevant as technological changes march along.

“If you are starting from scratch, you should use fiber in this day and age, unless there is a particularly difficult piece of geography and you reach it with wireless,” Talbot said.

Larkin of the MBI, on the other hand, stresses that the majority of people in the U.S. get their broadband connections through cable. “As you know, trying to find the perfect is a very expensive proposition. And we have found that the case here.”

Nonetheless, many towns plan to go the fiber route, with backing from the MBI.

“If a town wants to do a fiber to the home build, that’s probably the most expensive option,” said Kirk. “If the town is ready to take that on and can afford it, that’s the path that they’ll take.”

Dubendorf, the MBI board member, has sat listening to the same rationale. But he too sees the value of investing in fiber. “The aspirational element of fiber-to-the-home is undeniable.”

FUTURE SHOCK

Looking ahead, some observers worry that the nature of the digital divide will eventually reverse. Communities that already had broadband, largely through cable and phone company service, will be saddled with slow internet connection speeds compared to fiber-optic service in some previously unserved communities.

They call increasing connectivity speeds everywhere vital to economic development.

“It flips the communities,” said Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. His group’s board spelled out its concerns about broadband access and speeds in a letter to Baker in December.

“It leaves our communities with a second-class broadband system, which from a business standpoint makes no sense. The demand for speed is increasing exponentially,” Karns said.

Though it has been more than eight years since former Gov. Patrick made his pledges, the current team at the MBI stresses that since it reset its game plan, it is getting things done.

While that hasn’t solved the problem, a recent summary of progress notes significant gains, including grants to towns that are now creating networks and the nine-town cable expansion last summer outside of Berkshire County, plus the three-town agreement with Charter in Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge.

The MBI tweaked the last-mile plan last September to emphasize private-sector participation and is poised to shift it again this month by requiring that towns seeking to build their own networks handle their own requests for proposals — with advice from the MBI and an outside engineering firm.

Edmund Donnelly, the MBI’s deputy director, has witnessed the frustration in unserved towns firsthand. He says he feels the pain of not having broadband “very, very acutely.”

“I think some of the towns feel that we don’t feel this the same way that they do,” he said last week.

“I understand we’re not living it the same way that they are, but we very certainly feel the urgency that they do. We are doing the best we can as quickly as we can to get these towns online. We are very, very sensitive to the pressures they are under.”

Kirk, the deputy secretary of housing and urban development, said the unserved towns still hold power over their digital futures.

“The towns have to ultimately own and accept, from a decision-making standpoint, the path forward that they want. That’s very important to this initiative,” she said. “The important thing for the town is to get on a path. We have got to solidify the path forward for each and every town.

“To the extent that there is dissension in the town, or disagreement, the clock is ticking,” Kirk said. “We believe every citizen should have that ability to generate their own job, their own economic activity, their own livelihood through the tool that is part and parcel with today’s world.”


This series was reported by The Eagle Eye Team. You can reach Eagle Eye Team Investigations Editor Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214, lparnass@berkshireeagle.com or @larryparnass on Twitter. You can reach investigative reporter Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247, pleboeuf@berkshireeagle.com or @BE_pleboeuf on Twitter. Eagle Editor Kevin Moran also welcomes your feedback on this story at kmoran@berkshireeagle.com.


Read Part II: A look inside the collapse of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and WiredWest partnership.


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