Editorial: State should cover tiny New Salem’s broadband shortfall

  • New Salem Town Hall

Published: 11/15/2018 8:35:34 PM
Modified: 11/15/2018 8:35:45 PM

The small towns of western Massachusetts will be so happy when their years-long drive to provide universal broadband access to all their residents finally succeeds. It seems we’ve been reporting for years on the “last mile” of Internet installation, directed but only partially funded by the state.

For years it’s been common for state officials visiting the small towns of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region to be startled to learn they often have tenuous cell coverage and no WiFi, except on the steps of a town hall or library.

But it is coming – albeit at a cost often more than originally estimated. Petersham recently learned it will need an additional $800,000 to wire its town. Happily, town officials there feel confident the state will reimburse that unexpected cost.

Now we hear that New Salem, another small town on the other side of the Quabbin, has also discovered a puddle of red ink on the road to its internet rollout.

 It looks like the original estimates were way off — by about $600,000.  While original estimates were around $390,000 to prepare utility poles to carry the new cable, New Salem Broadband Committee Co-chair MaryEllen Kennedy says the “make-ready” work is now likely to cost more than $1 million total. Like Petersham, New Salem is hoping the state will cover the unforeseen costs.

“The commonwealth does have the funds now. They have additional funds — I believe it’s $12 million for excessive make-ready processes,” Kennedy told reporters recently. “We do have hopes that that’s going to cover the unexpected costs.”

One of the last 44 Massachusetts municipalities without a high-speed internet network, New Salem has been working toward fiber-optic broadband under the state’s Last Mile program since 2015. According to Kennedy, “make-ready” work needs to be done on utility poles before construction of the actual network can begin.

New Salem is currently installing town-owned utility poles to supplement those owned by Verizon and National Grid, which will allow the network to reach essentially every corner of the town – a town which at 45 square miles is just a bit smaller than Boston, but of course has just a 1,000 residents, which makes for challenging finances, given the cost per household for this 21st century utility. 

According to Kennedy, the town hopes to finish the utility pole installations by the end of November, and construction of the network would begin next year. Questions remain about the total cost of the project. Westfield Gas & Electric, which is designing and building the network, estimated the project’s cost at $1,967,666, just below the estimate the Massachusetts Broadband Institute provided the town in 2015, when residents approved the project at their Annual Town Meeting. That number is in addition to the roughly $1 million cost of make-ready work.

Next year, the goal is to begin connecting residents’ homes to the network. According to Kennedy, residents have had trouble selling their homes, and people who want to start businesses have had trouble due to the lack of high-speed internet, both of which illustrate the essential nature of broadband for homeowners and business people in this new age.

We  hope MBI will make a special effort to provide New Salem with the extra funding, as it apparently plans to do in Petersham, because it is the smallest towns that need the most financial help. They deserve the Internet service just as much as their fellow taxpayers in larger communities.

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