Hilltowns receive increased broadband access

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WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – Following completion of construction and testing last week, The Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s western Mass. Internet access system, MassBroadband123, will be up and running.

The system, which stretches over 1,000 miles, is ready to grant high-speed Internet access to the public safety entities, community colleges, libraries, and medical facilities, as well as town and city halls, in sparsely populated areas of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire Counties, along with a northern stretch of Worcester County.

However, some communities are still waiting for the new system to reach them, and State Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield) is hoping that residents of the state’s most rural communities will be checking their email and liking photos on Facebook using high-speed broadband soon thanks to an additional $50 million bill that is making it’s way through Beacon Hill.

“Our number one priority is expanding this service,” said Downing Monday afternoon. “It’s going to get to the Governor’s desk very soon.” Downing has long been an advocate for improving the connectivity of his district, which is the most rural in the State Senate. “When you look at western Massachusetts’ economy, one of the biggest hurdles is infrastructure, which in many cases is roads and bridges, but high-speed Internet access is just as important as roads,” he said.

Downing added that over $40 million in state bonds were put up to fund the project, with $45 million more coming from the federal government to fund the first part of the network. “For over the better part of six or seven years, our effort has been to make sure that residents have that access,” Downing said. “If you talk to commercial real estate agents about selling to people trying to move their business to some of these communities, the go or no-go question is ‘do you have access?’”

Downing credits the collaborative efforts of colleagues such as Representative Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington) in getting the next piece of legislation on the table, which would enable partially served communities in the hills of western Hampden County to build on the existing network. Kulik’s House colleague, Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), is also looking forward to seeing his district, the largest and most rural in the House of Representatives, “lit up” in the near future. “The Senate still has to pass this IT bond bill, but we’re well on our way,” he said, calling the initiative “huge” for unserved and underserved communities. “The original house bill had $40 million in it, and Rep. Kulik was instrumental in advancing an additional $10 million.” Pignatelli says that the state has now committed over $100 million to beefing up the it’s rural IT infrastructure. “You have some communities that have cable TV in parts, not in others, Internet in some, but not others,” said Pignatelli, whose district includes the hilltowns of Blandford, Chester, and Tolland. “It’s huge for the economy. The future is in small, home-based businesses, and wireless internet access opens up foreign markets and the rest of the country.”

In towns like Montgomery, community leaders like Selectman Daniel Jacques say that the move to more widespread broadband access is going slowly and the natives are growing restless. “Towns are anxious but it’s not happening fast enough,” said Jacques, who works for a construction company but spent six years as an IT Director. “We’re falling behind major population centers in terms of access.” Jacques also serves as Montgomery’s town delegate for Wired West, an organization made up of 42 towns in western and central Massachusetts fighting for more available broadband high-speed Internet.

Other member hilltowns include Blandford, Chester, Huntington, Middlefield, and Worthington. “In Montgomery, we have DSL, which runs at a maximum of three megabits, which is behind the government standards for ‘high-speed’,” said Jacques, who also serves on the executive committee for Wired West. “But when you’re telling people that you’re two to three years away from granting them high-speed Internet, they get anxious. It affects businesses, whether or not you can work from home, whether you can sell your house.” Jacques believes the new bill in the State House is a good thing, and is ready to begin working with the Mass. Broadband Institute to build up the Internet infrastructure of western Massachusetts.

“Hopefully, if you ask me about Internet access in the next few years, we’ll be talking about five, ten, fifty megabits, not three,” he said. Regarding the timeline for the completion of the project, Pignatelli said he hopes the Senate will pass the bill to address what he calls “the digital divide”, and ship it off to the Governor within the next two to four weeks. “We hope to start building upon the existing infrastructure this summer,” he said. “It’s almost too late, but we can’t quit now. We’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal.”

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Media Credit: The Westfield News

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