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opinion | Mike Ross

Boston’s start-up disconnect

PandoDaily, the website of record for Silicon Valley, recently declared Boston to be “losing its start-up mojo,” citing our recent fall to sixth place in Startup Genome’s city ranking report. Meanwhile, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is hard at work building the one thing it never had — a world-class research institution like MIT — with its new Cornell NYC Tech science school located on Roosevelt Island. The rest of America is not sitting still, either. Even cities in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri are calling themselves Silicon Prairie, and have been actively recruiting start-ups and hipsters alike.

The state of Boston’s innovation economy is undeniably strong. But with other cities nipping at our heels, there are very real barriers to overcome if Boston wants to maintain its East Coast dominance. Some challenges are complex and will take time: doing a better job of retaining local talent, fostering an investment culture that is more comfortable taking creative risks, building sufficient housing stock over the coming years to make Boston a more affordable place to live. Not to mention our city’s lifelong journey toward hipness. All of these are important aspects to a thriving innovation economy.

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But in competing with other cities for new business here’s one thing we need to fix right now: simply logging onto the Internet.

Difficult though it may be to believe, Greater Boston is littered with connectivity dead spots. Most troublesome are the gaps within those business districts where technology companies abound. Just talk to the entrepreneurs along the Red Line, from Davis Square to South Station. Cort Johnson, who runs Terrible Labs, a Boston-based web and mobile application development consultancy, found out the hard way. Only after moving into its converted loft-style office on the edge of Downtown Crossing did the company realize its limited connectivity options. It settled with DSL.

This isn’t okay.

Let’s start by recognizing the massive head start Boston has had over the rest of the world. It was on 30 School Street, in the heart of Downtown Crossing, where Lewis Latimer worked alongside Alexander Graham Bell to invent the telephone. The telephone!

One would think that kind of early innovation would have placed us on the top of the list for new telephony roll-outs such as Google Fiber. Nope. This latest connectivity, which boasts speeds 100 times faster than traditional broadband, chose Kansas City for their inaugural city. No worries, we’re next right? Not even close. Next is Austin, Texas, then Provo, Utah. We’re not even on the list.

Here’s one thing we need to fix right now: simply logging onto the Internet.

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We need help from our utilities. After running their now infamous commercial for FiOS of Donnie Wahlberg in Boston, Verizon now needs to make good on its pitch and make the service available to Boston’s businesses and residents. Comcast, which is in every single neighborhood, not just downtown, is actively talking to area businesses to plug the holes, and looking to continue to expand in places where our city is also growing like it did in the Innovation District.

This is not hard. It’s certainly not beyond our reach. It just requires a strategy to attract new initiatives like Google Fiber or get traditional telecoms to get in the game.

We need to quickly realize that we are fighting for every entrepreneur and must, at a bare minimum, strengthen Internet connectivity in parts of our city where new technology start-ups are thriving. Our next mayor needs to bring together the telecoms, real estate community, tech leaders, and others to come up with a plan. We need to liberalize the permitting process to encourage the expansion of our connective networks, be they underground or in the air. City Hall needs to recognize that impeding access to our streets may backfire in the long run. The failure to do so may cost us a whole lot more than slow connection speeds.

Mike Ross, a former Boston mayoral candidate, represents District Eight in the City Council.
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