With its forests and fields, farmhouses and cabins, Sandisfield in far western Massachusetts looks like a Norman Rockwell image of old New England.
And it might as well be, as far as Internet access is concerned. But in a time of pandemic, the lack of reliable high-speed broadband access in Sandisfield and other small western Massachusetts towns has become a serious challenge, especially for families with school-age children forced to fall back on remote learning.
After Monument Valley Regional Middle School shut its classrooms last spring, Sandisfield resident Vanessa Tarasuk’s three sons were often absent from their virtual classrooms, because the family’s sluggish DSL Internet connection kept collapsing under the load. It got so bad that the school asked local police to check on the family.
“We were truants, I guess,” Tarasuk said. “We couldn’t get on Zoom. We couldn’t get on Google Classroom . . . it was just so overwhelming that I gave up.”
Six years after the state completed a $90 million data network to serve the region, thousands of Western Massachusetts families and small businesses still do not have access to reliable high-speed Internet service. While hundreds of municipal buildings have hooked up to the broadband backbone, including public schools that are now resuming online-only instruction, some 32,000 residents in 32 western towns cannot get that connection into their homes, according to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)
“We’ve got 1,200 students. Something like 5 to 8 percent of them have no Internet connectivity,” said Peter Dillon, superintendent of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, which serves the Tarasuk family. “Some people, their access goes up and down.”
Ben Doren, principal of the school in Great Barrington that the Tarasuks attend, declined to comment on the family specifically. But he did acknowledge the school asked police or the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to check on students who weren’t attending remote classes.
And Dillon said the school district may continue to request wellness checks on children who don’t log into remote classes, and may even make its own visits to families. The district will try to arrange alternative broadband access, and if that’s not possible, students may be forced to rely entirely on printed handouts.
“It’s a last resort because they would be less interactive and engaging,” Dillon said.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The broadband network to bring high-speed service to the region was finished in 2014. But the “last mile” connections that bring fast Internet into homes and businesses remain incomplete. The state-funded MBI has provided $55 million in grants to 53 underserved towns as of 2016, but so far, fewer than half — 21 — have been fully wired.
By contrast, virtually every home in Boston has access to high-speed broadband, through Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications, or RCN Corp. Paying for the service is a problem for many low-income households, but the service is there.
In an emergency response to the school shutdowns forced by COVID-19, the MBI has deployed high-capacity wireless Internet hot spots in over two dozen public buildings throughout Western Massachusetts. But it’s hardly an ideal way for students to attend classes or complete homework, as it requires users to position themselves in or near buildings where the devices are installed.
The Berkshire school district has also provided families with mobile hot spots that connect to cellular data networks. But that, too, has a major shortcoming. “Lots of our communities have terrible cell service,” said Dillon.
Peter Larkin, the chairman of the broadband institute, said help is on the way, albeit slowly. The outbreak of COVID-19 slowed broadband deployment for a time, he said, but crews are now working at full capacity. An additional 11 towns should be brought online before the year is out. But that leaves 21 communities that won’t have last-mile connections before 2021.
In 2014, a utility co-op called Wired West had planned to build and operate a unified last-mile network for dozens of towns. But after Charlie Baker was elected governor that year, his administration switched to a system that provided grants to towns for a portion of construction costs.
The state allowed each town to choose its own kind of broadband network. Some built their own municipal systems; for example, the Pioneer Valley community of Leverett now provides access to gigabit data speeds to its 2,000 inhabitants.
Others have brought in traditional broadband carriers such as Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications, while still others are working with smaller entities like Wired West and Fiber Connect. A few have even decided on a completely wireless system that eliminates the need to string costly cables.
But deployment was delayed, partly due to disputes over how much leeway towns had in spending the state grant money.
“It took them quite a bit of time, but eventually the state heard the yells,” said Adam Chait, founder of Fiber Connect, a small company building networks in the Berkshires. The Baker administration eventually relented, but the dispute cost valuable time. “At that point, it was like starting over again,” Chait said.
An MBI spokesman confirmed that the agency made a series of changes several years ago to speed up the rollout.
Then there’s the matter of actually stringing the fiber. It sounds simple enough, but it requires extensive preparation work and coordination among the companies that share space on utility poles to ensure wires are spaced correctly. The small town of Monterey, for instance, has fewer than 1,000 residents, but about 2,000 utility poles.
On paper, said Chait, the inspection process to get a pole ready to be wired is supposed to take no more than six months. But with so many Western Massachusetts towns gearing up to install broadband networks, the process is taking more like two years per town.
“There’s no one to blame,” said Chait. “It just got very overwhelming very fast, for the utilities. They were missing deadlines left and right.”
Now, Larkin of the broadband institute estimates the last of the remaining underserved towns will be connected no later than 2022.
For some households, the last resort is a satellite dish. The satellite company HughesNet charges $70 a month but delivers a download speed of just 25 megabits per second, a fraction of what most broadband companies provide. Worse yet, satellite capacity is more limited than ground-based Internet connections, which means service providers severely limit download speeds once customers hit a monthly data cap. Those caps are so low — 20 gigabytes per month for example — they are easily overwhelmed by the enormous bandwidth remote learning instruction requires.
Vanessa Tarasuk is still trying to figure out what to do as school resumes. Her sons received “incomplete” grades for last year, but were still promoted. And even before the pandemic, Tarasuk said, the lack of Internet access had put her children at a disadvantage.
“We’re already behind, because schools rely on the fact that everyone has access to the Internet,” she said. “So we’ve always been behind. We’re always going to be behind. So we’ll just roll with it, I guess.”