Better than dial-up, but not good enough

Western Massachusetts is suffering from a serious lack of high speed internet. According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative's John Adams Innovation Institute, 32 towns have no high speed internet access at all, while another 63 communities have limited service.

Those regions without high speed internet are at a real disadvantage. A study released last year by Governor Deval Patrick's new cable commissioner Sharon Gillett found that

communities with broadband access experienced an additional 1 to 1.4 percent in their job growth rate between 1998 and 2002. Those communities also saw an added 0.5 to 1.2 percent growth rate in the number of businesses. Housing rents, measured as a proxy for property values, were more than 6 percent higher in 2000 in communities where broadband was available by 1999.

Governor Patrick has voiced his concern about the digital divide and appointed several officials like Gillett who are committed to universal high speed internet access. Now a number of projects are underway to help rural Massachusetts catch up.

Berkshire Connect is leading one such effort, pooling the resources of several communities to create WiFi coverage for portions of Western Massachusetts. The town of Goshen has created its own WiFi hot spot, using the high speed line serving its town offices.

While these efforts are a step forward for rural communities, WiFi service is still just a stopgap measure that lacks sufficient speed and coverage of wired networks like cable, DSL, and fiber.

The same is true of satellite internet, which is plagued by high costs and spotty service. It's still an upgrade, though, for places like Gouldsboro, Maine, where the town office is finally getting high speed internet service from WildBlue, a satellite provider.

Before the new satellite service, town and law enforcement officials were stuck sharing a dial-up connection, making it difficult for them to conduct official business like filing state license applications and police reports. That makes life for townspeople more difficult – and potentially more dangerous. As Gouldsboro Police Chief Guy Wycoff noted,

[T]he U.S. Department of Homeland Security has called for greater cooperation among all law enforcement agencies. He says being able to communicate and share information rapidly is critical to fulfilling that. Having high-speed Internet via WildBlue will enable him to file his police reports efficiently and work more seamlessly with other police officers.

While satellite internet service will solve some of these problems, it is costly and susceptible to weather interruptions, and in the long run it may prove incapable of handling advanced applications like videoconferencing and telemedicine.

It is troubling that such stripped-down service is an improvement for so many communities, and it shows just how low the bar has been set for high speed internet access in the U.S.

Towns left scrambling for a touch of broadband (Boston Globe)

Leaving Western Massachusetts Out in the Cold (Speed Matters)

Gouldsboro Town Office Internet Access Due to Speed Up (Ellsworth American)