Broadening the Band
Getting high-speed Internet to the Berkshires, one town at a time
It wasn’t long ago when logging onto the Internet meant listening to those annoying dial-up beeps before finally getting connected. Then in 2008, we in the Berkshires were thrilled by the introduction of what was then called “high-speed Internet” provided by DSL.
DSL, or digital subscriber line, technology brings high-bandwidth capabilities to homes and small businesses over ordinary copper telephone lines. But in the wireless world, what was once new is now antiquated, and many parts of the Berkshires really need new technology to keep up with higher Internet traffic and download speeds. That technology comes in the form of fiber-optic connections, the fastest type of high-speed Internet available. And a nationwide study released in June by researchers at the University of Colorado and Carnegie Mellon University finds fiber-optic connections can add $5,437, or almost 3 percent, to the value of a $175,000 home.
In the Berkshires, though, many home and business owners alike are resetting their routers daily, trying to find the optimum signal to stream. It is hoped that such frustrations will be relieved in the near future, as local officials have taken it upon themselves to solve the problem by building their own high-speed networks. WiredWest, a “cooperative of small towns in western Massachusetts dedicated to bringing affordable, reliable, high-speed Internet to those who have been without it for too long,” proposes to serve 32 towns in its consortium—13 of them in Berkshire County—with faster speeds and competitive pricing. At least 40 percent of households in each town must place a deposit with WiredWest to meet the cooperative’s minimum requirement for service.
The cost of building the new high-speed network in all 32 towns is an estimated $79 million. So far, 22 towns have passed bond measures to fund construction. This allows the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) to begin work in those areas. (Work on the first towns is expected to begin later this year. ) There will be an added one-time fee to have high-speed capabilities brought to the homes, with residents who live farther away paying a higher cost. Although the June 30 pre-subscription deadline has come and gone, towns have the ability to vote until 2016 to receive grants from MBI to begin building. The state will pay for a portion of the project, and the rest will come from the towns—or taxpayers—through bonds.
WiredWest offers rates ranging from $49 to $109 a month per household, depending on the package. It contends that overall, the rates are cheaper than the bundles DSL charges, and WiredWest is faster.
In addition, the company says, if the amount paid by subscribers in each town exceeds the cost to provide service for that town, then WiredWest will return the profit to the town. So far, the 15 towns that have reached the minimum number of subscribers are Ashfield, Egremont, Goshen, Monterey, New Ashford, New Salem, Plainfield, Rowe, Sandisfield, Shutesbury, Tolland, Tyringham, Washington, Wendell, and West Stockbridge.
The idea of getting wired at high speeds sounds great, but there are skeptics. Berkshire County locals have been speaking up about WiredWest, and not everyone is in favor of it. Dan Lewis of West Stockbridge says he doesn’t support this use of government money. As an example, Lewis says that when the state grants loans to pave a road, everyone is using it, therefore paying taxes for it is reasonable. But WiredWest won’t be subscribed to by everyone in town, yet it requires each town it serves to pay whatever balance is left after the state kicks in its share.
Some folks also feel that scare tactics are being used. WiredWest says Verizon DSL will be obsolete and gone in the near future, and the only way to obtain the right form of technology is through WiredWest. Verizon has not offered any opposing argument to quell their naysayers.
Bob Rosen of Otis has a different take on the project. He believes that it’s a no-brainer, that it will change the way we live. He goes on to say that if it weren’t for implementing DSL and cell-phone service, he doesn’t know if he would have his house anymore. Reliable Internet and cell-phone service are crucial for people like himself who work at home. He likens building the new high-speed infrastructure to sending a rocket to Mars. To launch, it must have everything in place first, and that describes the WiredWest project.
Many individuals and businesses stand to benefit from having an Internet that is built for the 21st century. Education opportunities will benefit as well: Schools will be able to implement teaching opportunities that are only available through high-speed connections. While upfront costs are a valid concern, perhaps the outlay is worth what many feel is now a necessity.