Slowly but surely, broadband Internet service is coming to Western Massachusetts, and Eric Nakajima, director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute,cq is making it happen, with $135 million in federal and state funds committed so far, and more to come. A Globe reporter recently spoke with Nakajima to learn how this urban planning expert is leading this major upgrade of the state’s digital infrastructure.
1. Nakajima, 48, has led the state-funded Massachusetts Broadband Institute since last December. The institute, founded in 2008, was created to bring high-speed Internet service to underserved parts of the state. Broadband access is vital for economic growth in Western Massachusetts, Nakajima said.
“There are 45 communities that don’t have any broadband access right now,” Nakajima said. “Until we built the Massachusetts broadband ‘middle mile’ network, which was completed just this past year, there were over 1,000 community organizations and institutions like town halls, libraries, elementary schools, as well as public safety, that lacked broadband access. Broadband is what telephony and electricity and other basic infrastructure were in the last century.”
2. The Western Massachusetts broadband network features 1,200 miles of fiber optic cable connecting more than 1,100 schools, libraries, and public safety buildings. Connecting the network to thousands of homes and businesses might sound like a job for an engineer, Nakajima said, but it’s mainly a political challenge.
“What this is [is] a fairly complex intergovernmental challenge. The state is investing up to $50 million in broadband extensions in Western Massachusetts, but that’s not nearly enough money to cover the whole project. In order to succeed, we need to partner with municipalities. I’ve done a lot of work in public-private partnerships, in grant administration, in working with different layers of government. It’s a great challenge to take on.”
3. For the communities finally getting broadband, it might end up being worth the wait. Once the network is complete, Internet speeds in the region could rank among the best in the state, at very reasonable rates, Nakajima said.
“We are adopting the current FCC forward-looking standard of 25 megabits of download and 3 megabits of upload. It’ll in fact exceed that capacity from day one. The best example we have is the town of Leverett, where they’re already signing people up. It’s around $88 a month for Internet and telephony. It’s going to greatly exceed that 25 megabit capacity.” (Average download speed in the United States is now about 11 megabits.)
4. Nakajima lives in Amherst and gets his broadband through Comcast. He uses his Internet bandwidth to watch lots of TV.
“One of the things that I got recently was Apple TV. As someone who went to grad school out in the Bay Area and also has family in Japan, I am oftentimes really into wanting to explore other parts of the world, other perspectives. Through Apple TV, you can look at PBS or [Japan’s] NHK TV from your iPad.”
5. But, he said, he still leaves plenty of time for reading. He described himself as an avid reader with a passion for history.
“I read ‘A River Running West,’ the life of John Wesley Powell, who was the first person to go down the Grand Canyon and explore the Colorado River — the first European, I should say. That was terrific. I’m into the new Doris Kearns Goodwin one, about Taft and Roosevelt, ‘The Bully Pulpit.’ I’ve also been reading Thomas Piketty’s book, ‘Capital in the 21st Century.’ One of my greatest pleasures when I’m in [the city] is to go to the Harvard Book Store or the Harvard Coop. It’s a tremendous pastime just to wander the bookshelves.”