|Barrett Tells Williamstown to Form Broadband Committee|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
04:59AM / Wednesday, March 15, 2023
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — State Rep. John Barrett III encouraged the town on Monday to form a broadband committee in order to tap into federal dollars allocated to help close the "digital divide" that prevents some residents of rural areas from accessing high-speed internet.
Framing the need for broadband access as an economic development issue, Barrett touted communities, like neighboring New Ashford, that have created municipal fiber optic networks.
To take advantage of the opportunity for federal subsidies, the town would need to first create a committee and hire a consultant.
"I discussed it way back when [Town Manager Robert Menicocci] first came here, the importance of having a broadband committee that could determine what your needs are, and then you have to hire a consultant, who will come in and tell you what you already know," Barrett said. "But that's the way the money is doled out.
"By the end of 2024, they're going to start moving ahead and awarding sums of money to communities that apply for it. … Another $143 million will be made available for infrastructure so these things can happen, especially, in rural areas of Western Massachusetts and Berkshire County."
In 2021, the town paid for a study that included a market survey
by Virginia firm Design Nine. That investment came on the heels of successive annual town meeting votes to authorize the creation of a "municipal light plant," the term for the public utility that could build a municipal fiber optic network.
Last summer, the town's Finance Committee discussed
the possibility of a municipal network with representatives from Design Nine and Westfield's Whip City Fiber, which manages the fiber optic network in New Ashford.
"I encourage Williamstown to form a committee as soon as possible," Barrett told the board. "You can see the money that's available if you go to the website for MBI, the Mass Broadband Institute. It's a tremendous opportunity.
"It could spur interest from companies when they see the availability to do this. For instance, in the town of Florida, they're using Spectrum. The state has helped them pay for that and the installation of that. Spectrum is going to get it after as new customers and make money."
Barrett said developing a municipal network could increase competition, keep prices down and ensure that underserved segments of the population receive broadband service.
Menicocci told the Select Board that he would organize a broadband committee, building on some of the town's previous efforts in that area.
Barrett used his appearance before the board also to drum up support for the Northern Tier east-west rail line, saying the current proposal would allow North County residents to get from North Adams to Boston in 2 hours, 50 minutes. And he reported that among his priorities in the fiscal 2024 budget discussions on Beacon Hill is increasing state aid to rural schools.
"Right now, we've done a study that shows $60 million is needed to actually build up rural school districts," Barrett said. "They're underfunded by that amount. … The governor put $8 million into it in her budget. We've only got $52 million more to go. Hopefully, the Legislature will be able to do that and get some additional money into it so we can bring equity as far as funding across the state.
"We're hearing more and more the term 'rural,' whether it's taking care of rural communities as far as Chapter 90 [transportation] money or education money. The time has come."
Select Board member Randal Fippinger asked Barrett about the status of home rule petitions on Beacon Hill to enact votes at last year's annual town meeting asking to increase the number of alcohol sales licenses in the town.
"They died," Barrett said. "They died mainly because the [legislative] committee came back and said their policy now is they have no problem looking at increasing licenses for a community … but they want to see a name and a business attached. Or if a town created a district, like the Western Gateway Heritage Park created in North Adams, way back when … they could get two alcoholic licenses for restaurants.
"That philosophy could change depending on who is the chairman of the committee next year or whenever."
Fippinger asked whether a different type of application to the commonwealth would require a different vote from town meeting or if the 2022 vote could be used to justify a new application. Select Board Chair Hugh Daley said that was a question for town counsel to address before the board could proceed.
Daley used Monday's Select Board meeting to announce that he will not be seeking a fourth three-year term on the body in May's town election.
He said four residents to date had taken out papers for the two Select Board seats that will be on the ballot — up from one potential candidate just a week earlier
The deadline to return nomination papers with the required number of signatures is March 21.
Daley twice during Monday's meeting encouraged residents to sign up to run for seats on the Select Board, Planning Board and Board of Trustees for the Milne Public Library.
"It's been a real pleasure to serve the town of Williamstown, a real honor," he said. "But I have done nine years, and it is time for me to make a change and for the town to make a change.
"It is extremely rewarding, even with all of its ups and downs. If you come in with the idea that it's public service and that you really want to try to understand another person's point of view and, ultimately, we're all in this together, it can be extremely rewarding."
Also at Monday's Select Board meeting, Planning Board members Stephanie Boyd and Peter Beck described the zoning bylaw amendments their board plans to send to town meeting this spring. Boyd announced that a public information session the board had planned for its meeting on March 14 was postponed due to the winter storm to March 21 at Town Hall.