When technology consultant Teresa Martin moved to Massachusetts several years ago, she planned to live in Sandwich and telecommute to her job at a Quincy software company. But after struggling with slow Internet connections on Cape Cod, she found it easier to commute to the office, more than an hour each way.
But soon, Cape economic development officials say, it will be easier for entrepreneurs, businesses, and consultants like Martin to stay put, thanks to a nonprofit group building a $40 million broadband network offering speeds up to 10 times faster than the region’s fastest commercial service. The nonprofit, OpenCape Corp., began laying fiber-optic cable in February and the first user, Otis Air National Guard base near Mashpee, is expected to connect this summer. The entire 350-mile loop, running from Provincetown across the Cape Cod Canal to trunks in Brockton and Providence, should be completed early next year.
“I call it the game-changer,’’ said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s actually going to save the Cape from just morphing into a National Park just focused on tourism.’’
In an era when high-speed Internet is critical to economic growth, OpenCape provides a model for rural and remote areas where telecommunications companies have balked at making expensive network upgrades because of limited returns on investments. Formed in 2006, OpenCape brought together businesses, local officials, and institutions such as Cape Cod Community College and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to fill a gap left by the market.
A similar initiative is underway in Western Massachusetts, where a quasipublic state agency, Massachusetts Broadband Institute, is overseeing the construction of an 1,100-mile fiber network to provide high-speed access to underserved communities and help boost the economy. On Monday in Boston, the Patrick administration praised the progress of the project, which is funded with $72 million in federal stimulus money and has so far laid 23 miles of fiber optics.
Cape Cod has providers that offer fast Internet, but the service is not readily available in some areas, particularly on the outer Cape, and speeds have been inadequate for businesses that move high volumes of data. Verizon advertises speeds of up to 7 megabits per second, but the service, aimed primarily at households, is subject to slowdowns during times of high traffic.
About a year ago, when OpenCape was well on its way, Comcast began offering business Internet at up to 10 gigabits per second, considered more than sufficient for most firms - for now. OpenCape will allow speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second.
The network, says one official, will help the Cape bolster its image among businesses.
More competition and choices will only help efforts to attract business and investment to the Cape, said Dan Gallagher, a founder and chief executive of OpenCape.
“It helps to bolster the case that our region is no longer a backwater,’’ he said, “but one with telecommunications infrastructure to support the needs of any size or type of business.’’
A Verizon spokesman said the company welcomes the competition. Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said the company is accustomed to competition and will continue to innovate.
The seeds of OpenCape were planted in 2005, when Gallagher arrived at Cape Cod Community College as head of information technology. The school, he discovered, had thousands of Internet users but less high speed Internet capacity than a typical home. He looked for alternatives, but found no options.
Gallagher soon realized he wasn’t the only one with a problem. At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, director of computer and information services Art Gaylord faced the loss of important scientific data when connections slowed or failed.
So, in 2006, Gallagher, Gaylord, and Martin, the tech consultant, convened a meeting to address the problem. More than 100 people showed up.
OpenCape was originally conceived as a wireless broadband network costing about $500,000. Then, the recession hit, stimulus funding became available, and OpenCape won a $32 million grant to build the fiber-optic system. The state is providing an additional $5 million, and Barnstable County the remaining $3 million.
Graphic designers, video producers, multimedia artists, and other businesses with big data needs could benefit from higher speeds. Higher speeds could also allow medical professionals to offer live consultations from Cape Cod.
“It would make it easier for developing new businesses that are tech-focused,’’ said Peter Karlson, a Cape Cod technology consultant, “and prevent people from moving off Cape because they’re hitting some sort of ceiling.’’
As a so-called middle-mile system, OpenCape will not offer connections to individual homes. Businesses and institutions near the system will be able to buy service directly from OpenCape. Eventually, consumers could buy access from independent service providers who would buy wholesale access to the network and resell it to smaller users.
Beautiful scenery, tight-knit communities, and a relaxed lifestyle have long tempted visiting entrepreneurs, executives, and small business owners to make their stay on the Cape permanent. But the lack of high speed Internet options made such moves unworkable for many of them.
OpenCape could change that, but the region can’t rely on a “build it and they will come’’ strategy to attract new businesses, said Northcross, the Cape Cod Chamber’s chief executive. It will need aggressive marketing, potentially costing millions, to highlight the high-tech infrastructure.
“We’ll have OpenCape here, coupled with our quality of life,’’ she said. “We can capitalize on the CEO who comes on vacation and falls in love with the Cape.’’
Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story inaccurately reported that Verizon’s DSL service on Cape Cod is subject to slowdowns during periods of high traffic. DSL speeds are not affected by volume of Internet users.