We Need Fiber in Western Mass — and In Our Politicians, Too.
Susan Crawford’s post does a great job of explaining and contextualizing the Berkman report on WiredWest. (Disclosure: I edited the column.) The report itself is a well-researched dive into the weeds of a connectivity fiasco with implications that reverberate far beyond the boundaries of Western Massachusetts.
But I want to dwell for a bit on the implications inside those boundaries. Because I literally dwell there, at least part of the year. I might even dwell there more but for the infuriating fact that my home has no Internet, save for a flakey low-speed Mi-Fi connection that caps out at 5 gigs a month. (Skype calls? Video streaming? Forget it.) The house is 150 miles from New York City and 120 miles from Boston, just off the nation’s busiest commercial corridor. But I have experienced better connectivity in rural areas of developing nations.
Now, this is only an inconvenience for me — I have the luxury of choosing to stay in New York City, where the wi-fi is just fine. But for the people who live in my town, and many other towns in Western Mass, it’s an everyday disaster. (And they are just the tip of the iceberg — millions of rural Americans are equally deprived.) Most of America has some form of high-speed internet — though generally it’s overpriced and underpowered. But thousands of residents in the towns mentioned in the report don’t have anything beyond super-high priced, slow, and data-capped mobile connectivity. And some in these hilly realms can’t even get a cell signal!
Kids can’t do their assigned homework. Students can’t take online classes offered by the local community colleges. People can’t access government services. And businesses? You simply can’t operate there. In other areas with lots of second homes, owners often decide to move from the city and set up operations in the beautiful, less stressful surroundings. It would be great for the local economy if this could happen all over the Berkshires and other western counties. But it’s near impossible without strong, reliable network access.
The only reasonable public Internet connection is at the local library, which thankfully leaves the wi-fi on when it’s closed. That’s why there are frequently cars parked in front of the three-room structure during off hours.
I have even heard talk from locals suggesting that they will demand lower real estate appraisals, because the value of their homes has cratered without access. Selling an unconnected house is like trying to move a property with no indoor plumbing or electricity. So houses in these underserved or not-served-at-all communities are worth less. If this catches on, the tax base of these towns will crater, and it will not be able to provide basic services. It’s a catastrophe in slow motion. But unlike the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, there seems to be no government will to bring the infrastructure up to speed.
What’s infuriating is how our telecommunications regulatory system failed us. It has been many years since the government realized that speedy internet connectivity is a vital necessity, like electricity or phone service. Indeed, in the early part of the century President George W. Bush promised that affordable high speed Internet would be available to all Americans — by 2007. President Obama made similar promises. There was considerable precedent. To get telephone services in rural areas, the FCC established a Universal Service Fund. Something similar was proposed for last-mile internet. But it has yet to appear. In Massachusetts, federal stimulus funds went to “middle-mile” efforts — not actually providing service to homes. Schools and libraries in Western Mass had internet, but not actual people.
Without that support, and because something had to be done, some towns moved forward with the plan championed by WiredWest, which envisioned a cooperative where communities would band together and build a network. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had budgeted some money towards the last mile. But it would only cover around a third of the cost. The towns with partial or no internet were so desperate to get a fiber connection that they voted to take out loans that comprised of a huge share of their total budget, just to help get what the rest of the country gets without onerous payments.
And now, even that approach has been “paused” by the governor. Paused? That seems to indicate that he’s only now figuring out what to do. It’s not like he could have been unaware of the situation before he took office more than a year ago. How could he have run for statewide office without a plan to provide the most vital service for thousands of his citizens? Why wasn’t this something he tackled right away?
Take a look at this meeting earlier this month where Governor Baker explains to frustrated citizens why he halted the process and is now launching a study to see whether wireless connectivity would work — when the towns have already looked into it and have concluded that fiber is the only reasonable long-term solution. (Ironically, Baker was out of the state and conducted the meeting via remote connection, using technology that thousands of his constituents are unable to use in their own homes.) He insists that he “gets it,” but clearly does not grasp the urgency, despite speaker after speaker explaining to him that they are well past the study stage and have been dealing with inaction for over a decade. (And it’s telling when he congratulates himself at the end of the meeting for surviving the session, even though he is “so not techie at all.” Gee, that’s reassuring!) I especially recommend the segment beginning at 14:00 where one small town planning board member dramatically pleads his case. He does a better job than I can, and as a full-time resident has more standing. “Our towns are dying… our population is going down, school enrollment is down… we can’t sell our homes,” he told Baker. “We need a bloodline to keep ourselves alive and that bloodline is broadband… we need your help.” He told the governor that like access to electricity, broadband is a right.
We as citizens have an equal right to it as people do in Boston and it’s incumbent on the government to give us those equal rights to broadband so we can have the same quality of life as people in Boston do and our towns can survive and grow.
The governor did not reply to his plea.
And what about politicians other than the governor? One might have expected firebrand Senator Elizabeth Warren to take on the big telcom providers and get us wired. When I asked her about this at a conference last year, she agreed the situation was horrible. But the solution she offered was for people to stand up for new leadership. Excuse me, Senator, but isn’t that why Massachusetts elected you?
I don’t vote in Massachusetts. But if I did, I would make it clear that no representative — state, local, or national — should be re-elected if he or she does not work overtime to push the process further. Internet is approaching the vitality of air, water, and electricity, and citizens should allow no representative to sleep soundly at night until they provide this basic need for those they serve. If they don’t see this as the highest possible priority, and demonstrate that they are working tirelessly to remedy the problem, voters should work tirelessly to throw the bums out of office.
Starting with the governor who called a halt to even the meager progress that the towns have made so far.