Massachusetts quest to connect 53 unserved towns is almost complete

Massachusetts officials revealed an effort to close last mile broadband gaps in 53 un- and underserved towns in the western half of the state is nearly complete after seven years of work. With the bulk of construction in the rearview, the government is turning its attention to new programs focused on digital equity.

Launched in 2016, the state’s Last Mile Program offered grant funding to support co-investment in broadband network rollouts to cover 44 unserved towns in western and central Massachusetts and nine communities only partially served by cable.

During a press conference on Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker said service is now available in all 53 last mile towns. Work in 46 of the communities is fully complete, while the remaining seven are only partially lit. Deployments are still in progress in Egremont, Florida, Hawley, Monroe, Monterey, Royalston and Savoy.

The projects in Florida, Hawley, Monroe and Savoy are being completed in partnership with regional ISP WiValley, while work in Royalston is being done by Charter Communications. Egremont and Monterey are pursuing other unspecified project pathways.

Baker said the Last Mile Program projects have collectively involved the rollout of 40,000 telephone poles and 2,000 miles of fiber to reach around 26,000 households and small businesses. The state has spent about $57 million on the initiative.

He added broadband “is like running water and electricity, and I really do hope it serves as a benchmark for western Mass going forward.”

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said the state's playbook for the Last Mile Program can serve as a template for how others can use the federal funding coming down the pipe from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

As work on the Last Mile initiative wraps up, the state is turning its attention to digital equity. It announced the launch of two new programs: the Digital Equity Partnerships initiative and the Municipal Digital Equity Planning Program. The former will help regional planning agencies, philanthropic groups and public and non-profit service providers launch programs which expand internet access, digital literacy, availability of devices and education and outreach. The latter will enable municipalities to undertake digital planning efforts to better understand the needs of their citizens.

Mike Kennealy, the state’s Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, said Massachusetts expects to allocate approximately $350 million in state and federal funding to fuel these programs.

The programs are the latest extension of Massachusetts’ big broadband push. In July, the state issued an Request for Proposals seeking a partner to operate, manage, market, maintain and extend its MassBroadband 123 middle-mile network. And in October, it secured an additional $145 million for its Broadband Infrastructure Gap Networks Grant Program from the federal Capital Projects Fund.