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Massachusetts Pursues Its Own Route to Broadband Expansion

Since 2016, more than a dozen rural communities in Massachusetts have gained high-speed Internet with state support. Mount Washington and Montgomery, with populations under 1,000, have unique stories to tell.

Conventional wisdom says a town with less than 200 people wouldn’t have the resources to establish and maintain high-speed Internet for its residents. But Mount Washington, located in Berkshire County, Mass., contradicted such wisdom in November 2017 when it activated its municipal fiber broadband service. 

From one angle, the case of Mount Washington is a miracle. Before broadband, Internet options for the town’s citizens were either dial-up or a long-distance Wi-Fi service that provided a download speed of less than 1 Mbps. 

“You could barely use Wi-Fi calling, and it was impossible to stream anything,” said Brian Tobin, Mount Washington selectboard member. “You could send emails, and you could do Internet searches that just took a long time.”

But from another angle, the massive turnaround for Mount Washington, which offers Internet speeds that can reach 500 Mbps, is part of a larger state plan to bring broadband to 53 rural towns that have lacked service to a significant degree. 

How Does the Massachusetts Plan Work?

Mount Washington benefited from the Last Mile Program, which provided more than $35 million in grants for rural broadband. The program is run by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which is part of the state agency Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech). 

Funds from the Last Mile Program wouldn’t have as much practical value for off-the-grid communities if not for a key piece of middle-mile infrastructure called MassBroadband 123, a 1,200-mile, $84.9 million fiber-optic network that covers more than one-third of the state. Although this network’s primary purpose is to give public institutions — such as schools and libraries — broadband access, it helps connect rural communities that otherwise would have greater difficulty finding economically viable last-mile solutions. 

“Private businesses have also paid to connect to it (what we call ‘extensions’),” said Brian Noyes, MassTech communications and marketing director, in an email to Government Technology. “And it has created the foundation for small unserved municipalities like Mount Washington to build to homes and businesses under the Last Mile Program.” 

MassBroadband 123 is known as an open-access network, meaning that both public and private Internet service providers can link to the network in order to provide services to underserved customers. In other words, the network’s structure allows the Last Mile Program to assist communities regardless of whether they opt for a municipal or private system. 

Currently, MBI seeks to help 53 towns get broadband through the program. All but one of those towns is “on a path to high-speed connectivity,” according to Noyes. To date, 16 of these communities have acquired broadband, which translates to service for about 6,800 premises. 

The Latest Success: Montgomery

In November, Montgomery, a town with a population of roughly 900 people, became the 16th community to offer broadband with assistance from MBI. Unlike the case in Mount Washington, Montgomery citizens didn’t choose a municipal broadband service. 

“They voted [the municipal option] down,” Montgomery Selectboard Chair Mike Morrissey said. “What they did is, they saw it affected our bond rating and our ability to borrow for other infrastructure issues and also the longevity of driving the tax rate up.” 

To help Montgomery, MBI fielded proposals from private providers for the town to consider. Comcast was the company that ultimately won a Last Mile grant of roughly $800,000 to create, own and operate a broadband network in Montgomery. 

Before Comcast completed the project, citizens in Montgomery had access to a DSL option from Verizon, but Morrissey said complaints about unreliable connections were common. Morrissey, who serves as an emergency manager for a neighboring town, also saw public safety limitations with the old system. 

“We had one home, the folks moved in, and Verizon refused to give them a landline, so they had no 911 service,” Morrissey recalled. “They had to … get in the car and drive out of their property to call 911. Well now, they’re connected through the Comcast broadband, and they have the services.”

With the new broadband system, parents in Montgomery can work from home and students can do their schoolwork without interruption. Firefighters in training can access up-to-date digital materials. Town administrators can start storing and transmitting forms electronically. Emergency managers can share natural disaster information and receive assistance from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. 

Beyond that, Morrissey commented on how high-speed Internet in Montgomery benefits Massachusetts itself through efficient data transfers between the local area and state.

“Whether it’s schools, or highways, or boards of health, we’re constantly working back and forth with the commonwealth,” Morrissey said. “Either they’ve got requests for data or we’re putting data in to comply with statutes that we weren’t able to do before. It was always a frustrating thing [before broadband].”

The price for better services has been right, too. Morrissey noted that he has saved $48 a month using the new network. 

Two Years After Broadband

It’s “12 miles down to the nearest store or really civilization” in Mount Washington, according to Tobin, and that means residents attempt to do as much as they can for themselves. Now that a couple of years have passed since the beginning of the town’s municipal broadband service, which has generated a surplus over time, Tobin sees that high-speed Internet further enables this style of life. 

“They try to be as self-sufficient as possible at home,” Tobin said. “But now we’re much more self-sufficient because everything, all the information we need, is at our fingertips. It wasn’t before.”

Tobin shared other noticeable examples of the social and economic impact of broadband in Mount Washington. Before the new system, people weren’t interested in looking at homes in the town, despite its abundance of natural beauty. But in the last two years, Mount Washington has seen more real-estate transactions as property values have improved. Younger families who want to work from home may now view the town as a potential destination. 

“In the 13 years before we had high-speed Internet, there wasn’t a single child born to any couple in the town of Mount Washington,” Tobin said. “In two years, five children have been born, and new couples have moved in. So I don’t know what I would attribute to broadband or anything else, but I can tell you it’s a big difference in a small community where we were losing population as older folks passed on.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.