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State to pay Comcast $4m to build out rural broadband

The state will bankroll about 80 percent of an estimated $5 million project to extend Comcast Corp. in nine rural towns in Western Massachusetts with patchy high-speed connections, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday.

The $4 million grant comes from a $50 million state program, approved in 2014, for increasing the number of “last mile” broadband Internet connections to businesses and homes in the western and central parts of the state.

Comcast already offers service in parts of each town — Buckland, Conway, Chester, Hardwick, Huntington, Montague, Northfield, Pelham, and Shelburne. But without a subsidy, it wasn’t considered economically viable to add connections to more sparsely populated areas of those communities.

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The project will connect nearly 1,100 new customers to Comcast’s Xfinity high-speed Internet service. They will pay the same rates as existing customers in their area, state officials said. Construction is expected to take two years.

State grants for the project will be capped at $4 million, with Comcast responsible for any cost overruns, said Paul McMorrow, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. Comcast had to bid for the award, although it only faced competition in three of the nine communities, McMorrow said.

The grant follows Baker’s appointment this spring of two new leaders to “refocus” the last-mile Internet initiative, which is run by the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Earlier this month, the state said it would grant $1.6 million toward a Charter Communications Inc. project to bring broadband to some 3,400 residential and commercial customers in Hinsdale, Lanesborough, and West Stockbridge.

“The governor has recognized that broadband access is not a luxury — that broadband access is an essential part of fully participating in the modern economy,” McMorrow said. “He heard directly from unserved residents in Western Massachusetts, stories about kids sitting in their cars outside the public library so they could get a Wi-Fi signal to do their homework, and just felt that was unacceptable.”

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Many of the towns covered under the new Comcast project were also part of a separate broadband initiative called WiredWest, which sought state grants to help it build a public utility to connect homes and businesses to broadband Internet.

This spring, a report from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society criticized the state for failing to spend $22 million on WiredWest, with one researcher calling the state’s last-mile broadband project “a tragic political mess.”

But state officials said the WiredWest plan was based on flawed assumptions and was unrealistic.


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