Hawley Selectboard seeks flexibility on broadband grant application

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 11-28-2023 1:44 PM

HAWLEY — Facing a time crunch to get the information necessary for a grant application by Dec. 11, town officials are asking the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) for more flexibility in its Gap Networks Grant Program.

“We are deeply concerned that the deadline for submitting applications for the first round of Gap funding — Dec. 11, 2023 — is unrealistic, at least for communities like Hawley,” the Selectboard wrote in a letter to MBI Director Michael Baldino. “For a community of fewer than 350 residents … it is simply not possible to complete such an application and carry out the requisite due diligence in a manner that ensures an accurate and well-developed proposal.”

MBI was created by the state in 2008 to bridge the digital divide and bring broadband internet to every part of the state, including the most rural areas. It provides grants and technical support to bring broadband to unserved or underserved areas. The program offers a variety of options for how to bring broadband to communities, including working with privately owned companies or building a municipally owned network.

Under the Baker-Polito administration, MBI brought broadband to almost every city and town in Massachusetts with the exception of seven communities, including Hawley. The remaining municipalities have networks that are partially operational, with more customer connections that are ongoing or in the final stages of construction.

MBI’s upcoming round of grants will award $145 million funded through the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Capital Projects Fund to partially fund broadband projects by public and private entities.

“The Gap Networks program aims to expand connectivity to unserved and underserved locations throughout the state to help bridge the digital divide, with a particular focus on communities with substantial low-income households and disadvantaged populations,” reads MBI’s description of the grant.

The first round of grant applications is due on Dec. 11 and the second round is due on April 17. Hawley officials, who say they were informed about this grant late in the process and are struggling to get all the information needed to apply, fear that if they submit an application by the second deadline all the grant funds will already be allocated.

“There is no way a town our size can carry out the application in the timeline MBI has given us,” Selectboard member Hussain Hamdan said.

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Selectboard members noted small towns operating with mostly volunteer positions and few part-time paid staff members have the hardest time applying for competitive grants, but are also the most strapped for funds as they have a smaller tax base — in Hawley’s case, fewer than 400 residents and a few businesses — to pull from.

One issue the town faces in completing the application is creating an area map that requires finding information and cross-referencing it to identify all the homes that could be served by the network. Another challenge is compiling financial reporting.

The Selectboard’s letter asks MBI to either extend the deadline for the grant application to allow Hawley more time to collect the needed information or specially reserve some portion of the $145 million in funds for the second round of applications with the April 17 deadline.

Hawley is looking at multiple options to bring broadband to town. They have two private vendors — WiValley, based in Keene, New Hampshire, and Charter Communications based in Stamford, Connecticut — offering to bring privately owned fiberoptic networks to town. Town officials are also exploring building a municipally owned network with help from Whip City Fiber, or working with neighboring municipalities on a shared network.

Hamdan indicated the town does not have enough information to pick a preferred option by the time the Dec. 11 grant applications are due, a step that is necessary to be eligible for the grant.

“Small rural communities like Hawley face some of the greatest challenges in terms of ensuring digital equity,” the Selectboard’s letter continues. “The planning necessary to close the digital gap involves more than running a couple lengths of fiber down streets in an unserved urban neighborhood. It involves planning a network for an entire community sparsely distributed over more than 30 miles of rural road. We urge you to consider these factors and provide us the time needed to put together a meaningful proposal that will actually work.”

Reach Bella Levavi at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.