Massachusetts to Launch Broadband Infrastructure Gap Networks Grant Program with Capital Projects Fund Award

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Digital Beat

Massachusetts to Launch Broadband Infrastructure Gap Networks Grant Program with Capital Projects Fund Award

Broadband is critical to strengthening our economy, improving educational opportunities, and enhancing the delivery of health care, public safety and other government services. “If you can’t play in this space in the 21st century, you discover that your opportunities are limited,” said Governor Charlie Baker (R-MA). “It’s like running water at this point.”

For over a decade, the commonwealth has been working towards universal broadband access. This week, the U.S. Treasury approved Massachusetts' plan to use a $145 million award from the Capital Projects Fund to connect 27% of locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state.

The Digital Divide in Massachusetts

In July 2021, USA Today analyzed data from the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and Microsoft to create a profile of the digital divide in Massachusetts. By FCC estimates, in over half of Massachusetts's counties—8 of 14—broadband access was available to at least 98% of residents. Yet, according to Microsoft, in 8 of 14 counties no more than 63% of households actually had high-speed access. The White House estimated that 2.5% of Massachusetts residents didn't have adequate broadband infrastructure and 45.6% lived in areas that have only one broadband provider. Digging deeper, in Bristol County, 98% of households could get broadband but 56% actually had it. In Newport County, 96% of households could get broadband but 55% actually had it. In Berkshire County, just 39% had broadband access; in Franklin County, it's 46%; and in Hampshire County, it's 48%. Leading the state are Nantucket County with 100%, Dukes County with 83% and Barnstable County with 72%.

Among Massachusetts's wealthiest counties: 100% of Nantucket County had access, 71% of Norfolk County had access and 71% of Middlesex County had access. Among the least-wealthiest counties, access rates were 56% in Hampden County, 39% in Berkshire County and 46% in Franklin County. Among the state's most populated counties: Some 71% of Middlesex County households had broadband access, as well as 63% of Worcester County households and 60% of Suffolk County households.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute

In 2008 the commonwealth created the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and set aside $40 million for the Massachusetts Broadband Incentive Fund. The first priority of the institute was to assess and improve conditions in the commonwealth’s communities that have no broadband access. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute's main  objectives were:

  1. Assessing and improving broadband access conditions in communities that have no access or have limited or insufficient access to broadband;
  2. Promoting robust broadband access for essential state and local governmental services including, without limitation, public safety, health, and education;
  3. Promoting increased availability of, and competition for, broadband access and related services; and
  4. Creating conditions that will encourage economic competitiveness and growth.

The idea was to leverage private sector and federal investment by financing the construction and acquisition of broadband infrastructure to promote the development of broadband access. MBI's mission is to make affordable high-speed Internet available to all homes, businesses, schools, libraries, medical facilities, government offices, and other public places across the commonwealth.

MassBroadband 123

MBI built the MassBroadband 123 network to connect over 120 communities and serve as a building block for the region. Completed in February 2014, MassBroadband 123 provides fiber-optic connectivity to over 1,100 public institutions across western and central Massachusetts, including town halls, libraries, schools, and public safety offices. The network was funded by over $90 million from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. It serves as a backbone for more than one-third of the geographic area of Massachusetts, with more than 400,000 households and businesses and more than one million residents. And the state-owned network provides the necessary broadband infrastructure to foster economic growth, improve health care and education, and strengthen public safety.

In 2020, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society highlighted the significant cost savings that MassBroadband 123 provided to Alford, which was previously unserved by broadband:

In Alford, Massachusetts, a rural town of roughly 350 residents, the presence of the MassBroadband 123 middle-mile network saved the town the cost of building fiber to the closest internet point-of-presence—20 miles away. The cost of building that middle-mile connection would have been more than the town’s $1.5 million cost to build fiber-to-the-premises to all residents of Alford.

In addition to the connection to MassBroadband 123, Alford’s municipally-owned network was also supported by over $700,000 from the Commonwealth’s Last Mile grant program, funds which complemented the investment made by the municipality to connect homes and businesses in the community, which has nearly 500 residents.

Massachusetts Broadband Programs

MBI oversees the Last Mile Programs, designed to support and co-invest in residential broadband access projects in 53 Last Mile Towns, including 44 unserved Western and Central Massachusetts towns that lacked any residential broadband service and an additional nine underserved Western and Central Massachusetts towns that were partially served by cable. A flexible framework allows for a range of project models, including multi-town collaborations, locally-owned networks, and industry partnerships.

Earlier, MBI maintained separate "construction" and "professional services" grant pools totaling $40 million. The professional services grants were held back because MBI planned to provide the engineering and design services itself. In 2017, the MBI board of directors agreed to let Gov. Charlie Baker's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development take $20 million in grant-making authority off its plate. The move allowed eligible towns to apply for one-stop infrastructure grants through the cabinet-level office. At the time, 41 towns in Massachusetts were without residential broadband access.

In 2018 Lt. Governor Karyn Polito (R-MA) launched the Make Ready Working Group to coordinate the activities required to make space on utility poles in advance of the construction of broadband networks. Through regular meetings, new practices and protocols, the group was able to accelerate the Make Ready work. The working group included Eversource, National Grid, Verizon, Westfield Gas and Electric, Comcast, Charter, ITG, Sertex, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Department of Telecommunications and Cable, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Their work impacted approximately 40,000 utility poles.

By March 2022, the state’s Make Ready program helped utilities and providers bring modern, high-speed internet to 28,000 households in rural Massachusetts with 40,000 poles and 2,000 miles of optical fiber.  Forty Last Mile towns have fully operational broadband networks, 10 previously unserved towns have networks that are partially operational, and the three remaining unserved communities are in various stages of design or construction. The towns that chose to build municipal networks had to pay for about two-thirds of the cost themselves. That meant local borrowing and tax increases.

On October 6, 2022, the U.S. Treasury approved the commonwealth for $145 million for broadband infrastructure, which the state estimates will connect 16,000 households and businesses—representing 27% of locations still lacking high-speed internet access. [The $145 million is 83% of the commonwealth's total Capital Projects Fund allocation. The plans for the rest of the Capital Projects Fund allocation (~$30 million) are still under review at Treasury.]

Some advocates for rural communities had voiced concerns that communities that already spent money improving service will be ineligible for the funding. Federal officials confirmed that municipalities cannot use the money to pay down debts associated with completed broadband projects. Attempts by some lawmakers representing rural communities to get state money approved to pay down municipal broadband debt have been unsuccessful.  

The Capital Projects Fund award will fund the new Broadband Infrastructure Gap Networks Grant Program (Gap Networks Grant Program), a competitive grant program designed to address gaps in broadband infrastructure where reliable broadband service is currently unavailable. 

Funding from CPF will help Massachusetts continue its efforts to bridge the Commonwealth’s remaining digital divide. The Gap Networks Grant Program is designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion. Any networks completed with Capital Projects Fund support will participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). The ACP helps ensure that low-income households can afford the high-speed internet they need for work, school, healthcare, and more by providing a discount of up to $30 per month. 

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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