Monica Webb was the perfect expert to talk about “digital dead zones” with John Hockenberry on a recent segment of his radio program “The Takeaway.” Webb, who chairs the board of directors of WiredWest — a group trying to bring broadband Internet to Western Massachusetts — lives in one of those dreaded dead zones. Just to Skype with Hockenberry, the Monterey resident had to drive 20 minutes to an office in Great Barrington to secure a reliable connection.
“My other option was to do it outside, in my car, outside my local library, which is connected to fiber,” she told Hockenberry.
Webb’s commute is a common ritual — people regularly drive to a library or town hall parking lot for a high-speed Internet connection. At night, you sometimes can see us sitting in the passenger seat side of our cars, uploading a work project or downloading a software update, faces lit by the glow of a warm laptop. It’s not just a question of which movie to stream on Friday night, but whether there’s enough satellite bandwidth left this month to watch it.
But, thankfully, that could change. After years of waiting for private companies to bring fast Internet connections to the region, communities — with a lot of help from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a public agency — may do it themselves.
Some towns, like Leverett and Princeton, are building their own systems. Others are trying a regional approach. In about 30 communities up and down the hilly spine of Western Massachusetts, voters this year will decide whether to spend tax dollars to build out the “final mile” of broadband — the fiber-optic link that brings service from the so-called “middle mile” trunk to the home. The state is providing $40 million in bond funds to help offset local costs, but municipalities must fund the rest of the effort. The project is expected to cost between $112 and $119 million and will be built by MBI.
If voters agree to fund the bonds, and at least 40 percent of residents sign up for service, WiredWest would morph from a planning organization into a local service provider. Participating towns will get telephone, television, and Internet services at an affordable price from a local cooperative. It would represent a major milestone in the yearslong effort to bridge the state’s digital divide, and it’s long overdue.
While unlimited high-speed Internet is a given in Boston suburbs and beyond, it’s still a dream in a large swath of Western Massachusetts. It’s not for lack of a state commitment: MBI has used $90 million in state and federal funds to build a 1,200-mile fiber-optic network, called MassBroadBand 123, which provides middle-mile access to more than 1,100 public facilities in more than 120 communities.
But market forces never solved the problem of that final mile, and 45 communities are still classified by MBI as “unserved.” They’re places with more square miles than people, and where Verizon and Comcast have decided the cost is not worth the investment. In some towns, it’s a patchwork — some residents get DSL while their neighbors rely on satellite, and, yes, even dial-up. (And those FiOS brochures in our Verizon phone bills each month? A cruel, cruel joke.)
Towns are taking on the final mile for one main reason — and I’m quoting a WiredWest PowerPoint here: “Because nobody else will!”
Their survival could depend on it. Most of the industries that once sustained these places — the dairy farms, the mills that made fabric or paper or hats or knives — are gone. With only tourism as a job generator, small town New England faces a long, slow economic and social drain as young people move away. In a digital age, the lack of a modern telecom infrastructure could be the final blow. What business or young family today would move to a town without speedy Internet access?
Broadband alone won’t reverse this trend. But rural revitalization certainly won’t happen without it.
Even with towns’ approval, there will still be hurdles to overcome, including the usual management and planning risks any new business faces. But WiredWest organizers say there’s an economic and social benefit to a regional approach run by locals. As one advocate at an informational meeting in Rowe put it: “We’re the anti-Verizon.”
The group’s board of directors includes volunteers, small business owners, and techies, as well as local elected officials. WiredWest works with MBI and the Franklin County Regional Council of Governments. Already it’s worked with more than three dozen communities in five counties in a part of the state where home rule is part of the municipal DNA.
Consultant Greg Richardson, who worked with MBI on the economic analysis of the project, says WiredWest’s effort is the broadband equivalent of the rural electrical cooperative. In the 1930s, he said, the combination of grass-roots activism and government support, through the Rural Electrification Act, brought electricity to places where private companies would not go.
“Communities [that] were literally in the dark got together and said, ‘Can we do this ourselves? Because we don’t think the investors are coming here,’ ” he said. “It’s the same thing in Western Mass.”
Today, 75 percent of the geography in the United States is served by 900 electric cooperatives, Richardson said. WiredWest organizers are hoping for similar success. So are many residents, who are coming out to meetings to hear about the plan.
It can’t come too soon. Sure, I’d like to be able to upload my teaching videos from home. But I’d also like to watch the new season of this show I’ve heard about called “House of Cards.” They say it’s pretty good.
Towns poorly served by broadband
James Abundis/Globe staff
Below is a list of towns that do not have cable broadband.
B.J. Roche lives in Western Massachusetts and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.