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Political potholes impede bid to bring high-speed Internet to Western Massachusetts

Political disagreements have snarled plans to connect Western Massachusetts with high-speed Internet, but state officials could break the logjam by working with two dozen towns that want to build their own local broadband utility, Harvard researchers said Wednesday.

The report from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society highlights nagging gaps in Massachusetts’ modern Internet infrastructure, which researchers said “is fast becoming a basic need like electricity or water.”

Those gaps can persist even in the state’s most populous areas. Verizon Communications Inc., for example, recently agreed to replace its copper-wire cables with a $300 million fiber-optic network in Boston, bringing large-scale competition to Comcast Corp. after years of delays.

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The study from the Berkman Center said Massachusetts’ long-running plan to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas — championed by former governor Deval Patrick — has been compromised by bureaucratic clashes between local governments and the state.

The result, researchers said, is that residents of many towns still can’t get high-speed Internet access, more than six years after elected officials said a new government-funded fiber-optic network would bring broadband to places the private sector has avoided.

The report specifically criticizes the state-funded Massachusetts Broadband Initiative for declining to give nearly $22 million to WiredWest, a group of two dozen rural towns that want to create their own utility to build “last mile” broadband connections for local residents.

The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative said that it remains committed to building last-mile broadband connections but that its research into the WiredWest initiative showed the local plan relied on flawed assumptions and was “not realistic.”

“One thing we have all learned over time is that there are no simple solutions and few, if any, models of regional last-mile publicly financed networks,” spokeswoman Maeghan Welford said.

Recent efforts to connect Western Massachusetts with broadband date to 2009, when state officials began spending nearly $90 million to string a “backbone” of fiber-optic data transmission lines across the region.

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That project, called MassBroadband 123, finished its work in 2014.

But most of that capacity remains unused, the report noted, because MassBroadband 123 only connected government buildings, such as libraries and town halls, to the network. That leaves local governments in charge of striking their own agreements to connect private homes and businesses.

One rural community that previously had no high-speed access has been able to build its own connection: Leverett, a town of about 1,900 some 10 miles north of Amherst. Voters there agreed in 2012 to borrow $3.6 million, which helped pay for fiber-optic connections to 800 buildings in the town.

The town contracted with a private company to provide its residents’ Internet service, which costs about $75 per month and delivers speeds of 1 gigabit per second — around 10 times faster than average download speeds for Comcast’s Xfinity service in Boston, according to online testing service Speedtest.net.

The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which supplied some money for the Leverett project, said it was evidence of one way towns can successfully build broadband connections. But cooperative projects by multiple governments aren’t off the table, the agency said.

“Our ultimate goal is to achieve sustainable, affordable broadband solutions which will provide residents with reliable high-speed Internet access for many years to come,” Welford said.

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Berkman researcher Susan Crawford, however, called the lack of progress in Western Massachusetts “embarrassing.”

“This whole situation is a tragic political mess,” Crawford wrote in a blog post accompanying the study. “The real victims, as always, are the people whose day-to-day lives (and property values) are blighted by the absence of world-class connectivity in their homes and businesses.”


Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.