Delivering broadband across the great divide

Project kicks off in Western Mass.

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / July 27, 2011

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Massachusetts is launching an ambitious project designed to bring online relief to broadband-starved communities in the central and western parts of the state, a push that officials hope will deliver on the promise of jobs and economic expansion.

The public-private project, known as MassBroadband 123, will deliver high-speed Internet to 120 cities and towns, many of them rural, and help end the state’s geographic digital divide, Governor Deval Patrick said.

He said the planned installation of 1,300 miles of fiber-optic cable is also one of the largest projects of its kind under construction in the country.

“For too long, families and businesses in Western Massachusetts have lived without reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Today . . . we start the critical final step in delivering broadband access to everyone.’’

Patrick kicked off the project’s construction yesterday in Berkshire County at the Sandisfield Fire Department, one of nearly 1,400 schools, libraries, hospitals, and public safety facilities lacking reliable Internet service.

The project, expected to take about two years to complete, is being paid for with state and federal funds, including $45.4 million in stimulus funding and $26.2 million in matching state dollars. Network operator Axia NGNetworks USA plans to invest roughly $40 million in the project.

Faster Internet access has been a theme throughout Patrick’s tenure as governor. In a capital spending plan from 2007, his first year in office, Patrick asked for $25 million to bring broadband to 31 Western Massachusetts communities.

He also pushed for the creation of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to help provide state funding for broadband-related infrastructure.

To expand high-speed Internet access in the region, the state will attach fiber-optic cable to 35,000 existing utility poles in the project’s service area.

The effort is expected to provide work for hundreds of people. The fiber-optic network will ultimately serve about 333,500 households and 44,000 businesses in an area with more than 1 million residents.

Officials are also hoping the network will lure private investment and jobs, while also helping local governments deliver services more efficiently.

“In this day and age, no community in our Commonwealth should be without high-speed Internet access,’’ said House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Democrat of Winthrop.

State Senator Michael Knapik, a Westfield Republican who represents some of the communities that will benefit from the project, said it could also create new business opportunities for smaller and medium-sized industries.

“The small towns of Western Massachusetts offer a special quality of life, and this investment in high-speed broadband will help our communities to connect with the new economic reality,’’ Knapik said.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has signed an agreement with Omaha, Neb.-based G4S Technology LLC to help design and build the MassBroadband 123 network.

Under the agreement, G4S will complete the final design, engineering and construction of its fiber-optic backbone.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a public economic development agency chartered by the state to spur innovation, will own the project.

The collaborative will work with G4S to oversee the final design and construction of the network, which is expected to be completed by June 2013.

G4S has already deployed 55 miles of fiber-optic cable along Interstate 91 between the Vermont and Connecticut borders, through a partnership involving the institute and the state’s Department of Transportation.