Internet service is an ongoing issue in much of western Massachusetts and it might be some time before reliable service is available.
Under the Broadband Act of 2008, Governor Deval Patrick created the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, or MBI. $40 million in state bonds was provided to connect towns with limited internet access, and in 2010, an additional $45 million was acquired as part of a federal stimulus package. The goal was to establish MassBroadband 123, a 1,200-mile fiber optic network connecting underserved areas in the central and western parts of the state. It was supposed to be completed in 2011, but earlier this year, Governor Patrick lit the first section of the line in the center of the state. Monica Webb is the chair of Wired West, a municipal cooperative of 42 western Massachusetts towns that remain underserved.
“Some of the children in many of our towns actually have to sit outside the library and use the wifi to do their homework,” said Webb.
The so-called Middle Mile of MassBroadband 123 is scheduled to be turned over the state’s contracted service provider AXIA for operation in December. This portion of the project will provide wired internet access to major hubs like town offices, schools, and health providers in 120 municipalities. Webb says her organization is working to complete the Last Mile that would then provide the same service to individual homes and businesses.
“It’s the pockets of towns that aren’t next to a major thruway that don’t have internet access,” Webb said. “It’s likely because they tend to be a little less populated. This is why the private sector hasn’t wired us. We don’t have a densely populated area that makes it profitable for the private telecom sector to want to wire us.”
Webb says some towns have taken it upon themselves to provide internet access to their residents since municipalities have access to low-cost bonds and funds while not having to worry about making a profit. But, she says, in many cases the wifi towers that provide wireless hot spots aren’t as reliable or powerful as wired internet service.
“The general issue with wireless is you can only send so much bandwidth through the area,” she said. “The analogy I like to use is; if you’re standing at the top of a grassy hill and you pour one bucket of water down the grass hill and one through a pipe, the water you pour through the pipe is going to travel a lot faster and you’re going to have a lot more water at the bottom of the hill. It’s the same thing with wireless and wired.”
Webb says wireless service is tricky in the Berkshires because of the mountainous geography and thick foliage that block signals. Using a fire tower on Lenox Mountain, the town of Tyringham set up a wifi network last year. Town Administrator Molly Curtin-Schaefer says the town had poor internet and cell phone service before it set up the network. Still, problems remain.
“It did take a direct hit from the lightning strike last night,” Curtin-Schaefer. “So it’s out at the moment.”
Curtin-Schaefer says the town is still working to strengthen the signal.
“There are some spots where we’re looking to put a tower to bounce the signal back to some that can’t be reached,” said Curtin-Schaefer.
Governor Patrick has filed a bill that would provide $40 million to fund the Last Mile of the MassBroadband 123 project. The state’s House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets will hold a hearing on it September 18. It still needs to be passed by the legislature. Webb says Wired West is looking to partner with MBI to complete the last leg of the project. She estimates it won’t be completed for another two to four years.