High-Speed Internet Needs to “take on the status of rural electrification in the 30s” in Western Massachusetts
by Megan Tady
- USA –
For Maureen Mullaney, helping her kids with their homework takes more than just proofreading their papers. Fed up with a painfully slow dial-up Internet connection at home, Mullaney often drives her children into town, where they sit outside the library to pick up a wireless Internet signal on their laptops in order to do research.
“How silly is it that in this day and age, you have to get in your car in the middle of winter, drive to the center of town, sit in your car with it running, while your child can research the traditional clothing of Chile?” asks Mullaney, who lives in Ashfield, Massachusetts.
Mullaney says her children’s ability to do research for school reports is “ridiculously hampered” by their dial-up connection, particularly when they need to include images with their assignments. “You can’t see [the images] quickly,” Mullaney says. “You click on one and then you wait. And oh, that’s the wrong one.”
The process can be so frustrating, that sometimes Mullaney and her kids give up. “I just say, ‘Forget it, I’ll look it up for you when I get to work,’” she says. “So then I end up doing their research? What’s that all about?”
Soon, however, Mullaney may join other Massachusetts residents who already can surf the Internet like they’re driving a racecar. Last October, Governor Deval Patrick introduced legislation to bring broadband to residents stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. The Massachusetts Broadband Incentive Fund would devote $25 million to finance public-private partnerships that will entice cable and telephone companies to finally start offering high-speed Internet to less economically attractive towns.
However, seven months later, the bill is still laboring in the legislature.
“We’d like it done yesterday; we’re a bit impatient out here,” says Donald Dubendorf, president of Berkshire Connect, an “affinity group” organization that provides members with preferred access to telecommunications products and that is working on bringing broadband to Western Massachusetts.
Relief in the Commonwealth
Mullaney’s town is one of the 63 across the state that has limited access to high-speed Internet. Another 32 towns have no access at all. Ashfield, and many other surrounding communities have been unable to lure cable and telecommunications companies to deploy broadband widely, or at all, in their areas. These towns are remote, sparsely populated, and don’t offer the same “money in the bank” guarantee to Internet service providers.So while many Massachusetts residents can load a PDF, transfer money, and purchase a shirt in the time it takes for their iTunes song to finish playing, thousands of other residents are still pulling their hair out trying to just check their e-mail.
All but one of the 32 communities without any access to broadband are in the western half of the state.
Patrick’s proposal is designed to bring broadband service to all unserved communities by 2010.
“It’s been such a relief that the Patrick administration has made this a priority,” says Bill Ennen, program director at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency that helped create the broadband legislation.
Dubendorf says getting businesses and residents online is urgent. “Connectivity today is as necessary to this economy as roads were, electricity, etc. These are basic fundamental building blocks of community. Absent that, you suffer. Absent that, your portion of the citizenry becomes second or third class. This is about how we raise our kids, about how we enjoy our communities.”
Sustaining Two Systems
Robert Brooks is one of the lucky few in Leverett, Massachusetts. His house is located just close enough to another broadband-connected town that he can get it too.
But that hasn’t always been the case, and Brooks, a member of the Shutesbury-Leverett Broadband Committee, is all too familiar with the agonies of both dial-up and satellite Internet connections. “Unless you have lived without broadband for any length of time, you can’t imagine how bad it is,” Brooks says. “The problem is that so much of the state takes it for granted and they’ve forgotten what it’s like. They don’t understand the burden that we’re under.”
Like Mullaney, Brooks is worried about how lack of access will affect children’s education, particularly as they compete against school districts that have high-speed Internet. “That puts our kids at a fundamental disadvantage with their peers,” Brooks explains.
And like Mullaney, Brooks also sees the broadband issue permeating into all aspects of life, particularly his community’s ability to thrive. “There are many, many people who flat out won’t move here because there is no broadband,” he says.
While Mullaney says she loves her home, the lack of high-speed Internet access has her considering moving. “But when I do think about selling my house, who’s going to buy it?” she asks. “That may be a little overly dramatic, but seriously if I were to move, I would never move to a house that didn’t have high-speed Internet. Never.”
In fact, a 2006 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology measuring the economic impact of broadband deployment found that property values were higher in communities where high-speed Internet was available.
Ennen says broadband access is imperative for Massachusetts residents to participate in the global economy. “We really can’t imagine how you can have citizens who don’t have broadband access and how they would be successful in this globalized economy.”
He also points out that more than two dozen regional governments still use dial-up connections. “There are 30 plus towns that cannot interact with state governments, with the health department, with the department of revenue, or on public safety issues,” he says. “We cannot function. The cost of sustaining two systems of government – an “e-system” of government and the old – is extraordinary.”
The bill does not make provisions to guarantee network neutrality, which stops Internet providers from discriminating and censoring content. Free Press, a media reform organization located in Western Massachusetts, supports broadband deployment but has been warning residents about the bill’s shortcomings.
"As it stands now, this bill does not contain any language to protect consumers from corporate abuse and discrimination," says Free Press’ Managing Director Kimberly Longey.
Last October, the Associated Press exposed Comcast for blocking and censoring content, calling their actions “the most drastic example yet of data discrimination by a U.S. Internet service provider.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation then confirmed the AP’s findings.
A class-action lawsuit has been filed against Comcast, and Free Press and other organizations are calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to take action against the cable giant. In February, the FCC held a public hearing in Boston about the future of the Internet and to discuss Internet service providers’ anti-consumer antics. But in a highly publicized scandal, Comcast paid seat-fillers to keep many members of the public from attending the hearing.
Additionally some criticize the bill saying that it will create monopolies in many communities, and that it only targets the 32 unserved communities, not the 63 towns that now have only limited access to broadband.
The creation of a monopoly is less of a worry for Brooks. “If you asked me several years ago, I would’ve said that’s a huge concern of ours,” he says. “At this point, our biggest concern is not having broadband. Quite frankly, while no one is in love with a monopoly, and no one at all is in love with Verizon, the fact is people want broadband so badly that they will swallow hard and accept whatever happens.”
What’s Really Needed
Mullaney, who lives in a particularly remote area, is skeptical about whether she’ll get relief from the legislation. “Until this takes on the status of rural electrification in the 30s and the government acknowledges that this is an equity issue for everyone, I don’t think I’ll see anything,” she says. “It doesn’t make dollars and sense for the Internet provider to pony up the cash to bring Internet service to my house. So there’s got to be some sort of significant and high-level subsidy for it to happen.”
About the Author
Megan Tady is a freelance journalist living in Western Massachusetts.