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Rural Mass. Hopes ARPA Funding Can Go Toward Broadband Debt

Several rural towns in Massachusetts have taken on millions in broadband-related debt. State lawmakers may allow the towns to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars to lighten the debt for taxpayers.

rural broadband internet
(TNS) — Rural Massachusetts towns saddled with debt from building their own broadband networks — ensuring residents, students and businesses can connect to the Internet — could soon see more financial relief, if negotiations go as planned on Beacon Hill.

Within the state Senate’s sprawling $3.82 billion COVID relief package, comprised of federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act and Massachusetts’ budget surplus, lawmakers carved out $75 million to close the digital divide, including to support low-income households and invest in connectivity projects in underserved areas.

But a successful amendment last week from Sen. Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, ensures that small towns, especially those clustered in Western Massachusetts, are also directly eligible to receive a portion of that $75 million.

The crux of the provision, Hinds told MassLive, is accessibility and affordability. Over the last three years, Hinds estimates, communities have taken on more than $40 million in debt tied to broadband infrastructure costs.

“There’s broad recognition that addressing the digital divide is a priority and ensuring regional equity only makes sense when we this rare moment of resources available,” Hinds said. “This is a game-changing moment for a lot of these small towns, that people are capable of working anywhere and embracing remote work — and ensuring there’s educational access as we continue to make our way through the pandemic.”

The state House and Senate still need to iron out final details of the massive ARPA package. But some town leaders, grappling with shrinking populations and dwindling taxpayer resources, say the new aid cannot come fast enough.

It would be provided in addition to the state’s Last Mile program, which has invested over $57 million for broadband infrastructure for 53 towns, including 44 in Central and Western Massachusetts that didn’t have any residential service.

Wayne Glaser, vice-chair of the Goshen Select Board, said the money will have a “substantive impact” in Western Massachusetts, though the funding formula for individual town allocations — and spending rules — remains murky for now.

Glaser said help for annual debt payments would give municipalities a “short- to immediate-term advantage” by lessening the potential burden on taxpayers.

“Many of the Hilltowns have incurred several millions of dollars of debt, and if there’s not a substantial amount and it’s not distributed in a timely and equitable way, it will be problematic,” Glaser told MassLive. “Debt is the primary sacrifice. That debt means you may be limited in your ability to pay for other town services that were you thinking about, whether it’s infrastructure, schools, social services or police.”

Some towns in recent years, like Alford and Shutesbury, spent close to $1.5 million to install fiber optic cables, according to estimates from Hinds’ office. Others spent far more, including Cummington at $1.8 million and Ashfield at $2.5 million.

Construction costs are based on the number of fiber route miles and home installations, among other variables, Glaser said.

As Bob Handsaker, the municipal light plant manager for Charlemont sees it, the price tag is also tethered to the survivability of rural towns.

Charlemont invested $1.75 million for broadband infrastructure, which Handsaker described as a “huge amount” for a shrinking taxpayer base. The town also received a state grant for about $1.5 million in May 2017, according to data shared with MassLive.

“I’m not sure if we had a choice,” Handsaker said, describing some towns’ broadband projects as a great leap of faith. “If we don’t invest in this type of infrastructure, we’re going to dry up and blow away. Having good broadband is really an enabling factor for economic growth.”

Handsaker said a boost from the state’s ARPA package would stop Charlemont from incurring long-term debt — and potentially, from raising taxes or broadband service rates for homeowners.

Earlier this year, the Baker-Polito administration had proposed spending $100 million from federal COVID relief money to close the digital divide and expand broadband Internet access.

The Senate provision from Hinds follows an October report from State Auditor Suzanne Bump’s office outlining the stark need for Massachusetts to better invest in transportation infrastructure and high-speed broadband in rural communities. Broadband firms are wary of investing in Western Massachusetts, the report found, because of “the lack of population density” uncertain profit margins.

“Fast and reliable broadband is necessary to support community efforts to amplify education and commerce and to spark job creation and population growth...” the report states. “Without broadband networks, communities would not be viable as places to live, start a business, or raise a family, threatening their survival.”

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