On Cape Cod, upgrades come by the megabyte
Dan Gallagher is set to retire by the end of the year. And by then, if all goes according to plan, he will have saved Cape Cod from itself. As the volunteer CEO of the nonprofit OpenCape Corporation, Gallagher is months away from completing the installation of a fiber optic network that will run through every town on the Cape, enabling municipalities to communicate better and share resources, and businesses that rely on broadband Internet to relocate to the Cape.
At first glance, OpenCape’s purpose may seem straightforward: to provide a reliable Internet and phone service to network to a region suffering from a lackluster communications network. But Gallagher, the former information technology director at Cape Cod Community College, only sees these achievements as means to a broader end.
Indeed, better Internet service could usher in a broader transformation on the Cape, where fears of attracting an even bigger crush of tourists in the summer often hamper efforts to upgrade a creaking infrastructure for year-round residents’ benefit. For all its proximity to high-tech Boston, the Cape has transportation, water, and telecommunications networks that are desperately in need of updates; education and healthcare systems that need tweaking; and a whiplash-inducing seasonal economy that needs to diversify beyond tourism to thrive.
Gallagher’s vision for what better Internet service could mean for Cape Cod was clear at a conference co-sponsored by OpenCape last spring. There, 500 participants spent two days brainstorming the different ways OpenCape’s network could spur development on the Cape. At the end of the conference, the ideas were folded into an “evolving document” outlining a vision for Cape Cod in 2025 that includes “smarter” use of the environment, “smarter” development, “smarter” education, “smarter” health care, “smarter” transportation, and “smarter” government. Of course, each “smarter” starts with technology enabled by OpenCape’s new network.
Most of the participants — representatives from town governments, members of various chambers of commerce — left the conference convinced of the transformative power of broadband. But not all. One veteran Cape Cod resident stopped me on my way out the door. “What do you think of all this?” he asked. I shrugged and returned the question.
“I don’t think these people understand what they’re up against,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Plus, it’s just the Internet.”
Life on the Cape poses an interesting paradox: While the growth of the economy relies primarily on tourism and the steady increase of year-round residents, those who are already here want fewer crowds and less development, not more. In a 2005 survey, a whopping 96 percent of residents believed that there was either enough or too much development on the Cape.
Earlier this year, a pair of bumper stickers began popping up on cars traveling along Route 6. “I’m not on your vacation,” read one. “The Cape is full. Try Southern California,” urged the other. The words were different, but their message was the same: Stay out. Since moving here to start a business myself, I don’t think I’ve met one neighbor who’d completely disagree with the stickers — at least when there’s no tourists within earshot.
I understand the feeling. Every year, visitors jolt the region’s 15 towns back to life with energy and cash. But during the busy summer weeks, large crowds make the mechanics of daily life almost unbearable. Technology has managed to make the problem worse. Starting in July, the Cape’s already dawdling Internet connections and cellular networks slow to a trickle. Wi-Fi fades in and out. On weekends, cellphones stop working altogether. Of course, that’s the first problem OpenCape hopes to fix.
But there are other problems. For decades, the region has made decisions about its infrastructure that, instead of encouraging growth during the majority of the year, guard against the crowds during the busiest of summer days: Long-planned roads go unbuilt because they might lead to more traffic, even when current roads have been proven to be dangerous; year-round businesses bump up against capacity limits meant to protect the water supply during peak season; and housing developments have been thwarted, even as longtime residents struggle to find affordable, year-round housing for their families.
Those are exactly the types of projects Gallagher hopes the completion of OpenCape’s network will soon inspire. Remarkably, Cape Cod’s usual forces that fight against change — or the “nattering nabobs of negativity,” as a speaker at the May conference called them — haven’t yet thrown up any roadblocks.
Partly, that’s because up until this point, OpenCape has primarily been presented as simply a new provider of fast Internet service. And who doesn’t want that? “People don’t see us as having an impact,” Gallagher admits. The organization’s grander intentions — building new transportation networks, merging the services provided by Cape towns, inviting more year-round residents onto the Cape — will become clear over time.
Those are exactly the type of changes the Cape needs to thrive. And maybe OpenCape, with its promise of better Internet service, has finally hit on a way to achieve them — by tying them in with a project that everyone wants.
Rob Anderson, a Cape Cod resident, is a frequent contributor to the Globe opinion pages.