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One Word Limits Funding Options for Rural Broadband in Massachusetts
Lobbyists from the cable and telecom industry succeeded in using the legislature to firm up their rural Massachusetts monopolies this session. Communities that rely on state funds for local publicly owned broadband infrastructure projects now face restrictions on the reach of their high-speed networks.
A Long Trip Through the Legislature
Governor Charlie Baker’s economic development bill includes a provision designating funding for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development for broadband deployment. The agencies distribute the funds to various communities where residents and businesses plan to improve their local connectivity. Approximately 20 towns have decided to invest in publicly owned Internet infrastructure, including Alford, Otis, and Mount Washington, to name a few. Others are taking offers from Comcast and Charter, which will build out networks to more premises with state funding.
Many of the rural communities who are going with the publicly owned option want to connect households and establishments within the town proper, but also what they describe as “edge” properties — those beyond town limits but have no other choice for broadband. Edge properties in western Massachusetts typically don’t have access to anything better than expensive and unreliable satellite or dial-up. Often, there are only a few “edge” properties in each community, but neighbors don’t want to leave anyone behind.
Baker’s bill began its trip through the state legislature in March and, as is the case with typical large bills, went through numerous hearings along the way. Over the course of the legislative process, a question arose as to whether or not those rural towns wanting to serve edge properties would be able to use state funding to reach edge properties. In the original version of the bill, language specifically allowed municipalities the right to cross municipal borders to serve edge properties, but when the telecom industry opposed the language, it was removed in the House. The action left an ambiguous gap that Gail Huntress from Shutesbury and other western community leaders felt might derail their work for better Internet access.
"This is bad and threatens our municipal network success for obvious reasons," wrote Huntress [in an email to local muni network supporters].
For towns that opted to build and own high-speed networks, particularly in areas where geography isolates homes just across borders, regional cooperation is considered critical.
Huntress organized locals to contact their elected officials asking that the language be put back in the bill. In the Senate, lawmakers agreed and included the language in the version they passed, but lobbyists from the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association and others from the industry once again stepped in to secure their monopolies. During conference committee deliberations, they convinced legislators to insert the qualifier “unserved” on descriptions of properties where municipal networks can offer Internet access.
One word protects incumbent providers from competition in rural areas where they have no interest in upgrading services to rural folks who desperately need better connectivity.
Unsure of the Ramifications
The language also indicates a backslide in Massachusetts, where state decision makers appeared to be strengthening local authority, rather than limiting it. In 2017, Baker cleared the way for local communities to access funding for broadband infrastructure by allowing the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development to manage grants to communities, rather than MBI, as had been past practice. MBI’s difficulties in the past and perceived coziness with incumbents had created a sense of distrust among many western Massachusetts communities.
Sen. Adam Hinds was responsible for re-inserting the language into the Senate version of the bill. When the conference committee met to reconcile the Senate and House versions, however, the finished product included the "unserved" requirement. Hinds noted in a Berkshire Eagle article that adding “unserved” makes the language “surgically protective” for incumbent ISPs; it prevents competition from potential municipal network service.
By limiting who can receive service from the emerging public broadband networks, the measure limits options, the senator said, "for residents who don't have the luxury of multiple options that residents in other parts of the state have."
"Maybe it's a larger policy issue to tackle in another vehicle," Hinds said.
As the Massachusetts legislature looks at other ways to tackle lack of competition in rural areas of the state, we recommend Senator Hinds and other legislators read our 2018 report, Profiles of Monopoly: Big Telecom and Cable.