The Berkshire Eagle
Missteps, challenges mar Boston promises to bridge digital divide
Nearly 10 years ago, Gov. Deval Patrick came to Becket with a promise of information-age equity: broadband internet service across Western Massachusetts. By 2011, he said.
And yet the “digital divide” persists.
Closing the broadband gap in rural areas not served by private companies has already taken longer than the nation’s quest to put a man on the moon. The presidency of Barack Obama came and went with the goal of near-universal broadband service unrealized.
In his State of the State address on Jan. 24, Gov. Charlie Baker pointed to steps his administration has taken since spring to accelerate work by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. The governor boasted of “more progress on local broadband access than in the last five years.”
Even so, Baker noted that “too many communities in Western Mass. still don’t have access to this essential service.”
And now his team is encountering new headwinds as it tests the willingness of private companies to fill the breach.
Why has it taken so long?
Interviews by The Eagle Eye Team paint a complex picture of missed signals and wrong turns within government, high construction costs and a fact that bedevils all projects: lots of road miles with too few houses on them.
Years were spent constructing a “middle mile” fiber network that helped public buildings obtain broadband internet service, a system that was supposed to entice private enterprise to go after unserved households in areas they’d ignored. Not enough attention was paid to the “last-mile” dilemma, some MBI board members admit.
And then months were lost in 2015 and 2016 amid confusion and sharp disagreement over whether taxpayer dollars should be invested in a nonprofit regional solution pitched by WiredWest.
The delay has been costly. Business deals fell through for lack of broadband, interviews found. Real estate listings for homes without high-speed internet languished. Home-based entrepreneurs struggled to explain why they were slow to reply to emails.
And high school students risked falling behind classmates because their homes lay stuck in the digital divide.
Even as they waited for modern internet connections, unserved towns saw that divide widen, as homes and businesses that had previously received broadband through what’s known as DSL service from Verizon dropped off the map after a property sale. Some discovered that Verizon had decided not to allow new DSL connections.
While state government worked to right a technological wrong, some saw another problem on the horizon.
By pulling back during 2016 from a broad goal of providing fiber-optic cable to homes and businesses, the broadband effort could be setting itself up for consumer disappointment, they said. And it could hobble economic activity throughout Western Massachusetts.
Fiber is considered “future proof,” in that it can serve an accelerating demand to move increasing amounts of data, while other forms, including the coaxial cable laid in some communities by private companies, is more limited.
In the town of Monterey, desperation sent one disappointed resident, Mark Makuc, running into the road. The driver of a Verizon service truck had just told Makuc’s wife he could not hook the family up to DSL.
Makuc had heard that six times before — and was fed up. He chased after the driver.
“I said, ‘Please, just do what you need to do … this [makes] seven times I’ve been through this,’” said Makuc, who is his town’s library director. The technician relented and helped him.
Meantime, as Verizon was ratcheting down its DSL service, other players saw opportunities. Several private companies “cherry picked” customers and provided them broadband service, but it left the most isolated homes and businesses even less appealing to a private-sector partner.
Accolades were flowing in September 2012 for the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. A national telecom group named it “community broadband organization of the year.” The next month, the Broadband World Forum piled on, nominating MBI for its “broadband infovision award.”
But that fall, the problem the institute had already worked for four years to close still left tens of thousands unable to get high-speed internet service in homes and businesses in more than half of Berkshire County’s 32 communities.
Today, the divide remains nearly as stark, with most of the original 19 “unserved” Berkshires towns still in the dark.
“Infovision,” it seems, didn’t change reality.
That is particularly true for geographically large towns with small populations — which describes much of western Massachusetts.
The 19 unserved towns had a population of 20,091 as of the 2010 census, representing 15.3 percent of the population of 131,219 at the time.
“The Berkshire County population has been grotesquely misserved,” said Holly Ketron, a Tyringham resident who has worked to bring broadband to her community.
It isn’t only people who live in unserved towns who feel that way.
Linda Dunlavy, a member of the MBI board of directors, says she’s seen four governors work to solve this problem. “Every administration had to figure out the depth of the broadband problem in their own way,” said Dunlavy, who is executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Greenfield. “This is still a difficult problem with no easy answers. Where do we go from here? That’s the biggest question.”
After repeated delays in broadband progress going back years, and in a prior governor’s term, Dunlavy says she understands the disappointment. “People are always scared that the other shoe is going to drop. I think that everyone feels that it has happened. And every time that happens, people are less forgiving.”
Donald Dubendorf, a Williamstown attorney who has been working to bring broadband to the Berkshires for decades, formerly with Berkshire Connect, said many factors confound bringing broadband to a rural area, which he calls a moral issue.
“There are no magic wands,” said Dubendorf, who also serves on the MBI board, “and not enough public dollars to behave as if there were magic wands.”
“It’s always been a question of affordability,” he said. “I know how intractable the challenges have been. I have had to learn patience. I may have to work on this another 20 years.”
He adds, “Has any of this been perfect? No. I’ve had to double-back on myself.”