Remote Mass. towns welcome broadband’s arrival

broadband

LEVERETT — When people think of the Massachusetts tech economy, they probably don’t think of this town of 1,900 built into the woods about 10 miles north of Amherst.

That could change.

Since April, this Western Massachusetts community has steadily connected homes, businesses, and town offices to a municipal fiber-optic network offering broadband services that have long bypassed this part of the state.

Today, software developer Al Nutile can video-conference and write code simultaneously with a project team scattered across three continents from his hillside home.

Carter Wall, who lives on a dirt road, can download big data files from the solar power installations she monitors. At the local cafe, people can bring iPads and get blazing-fast Wi-Fi instead of waiting their turn to surf the net at a dusty, old desktop with a satellite connection that cuts out in bad weather.

By the end of this month, Leverett will have linked every home in town to broadband. Nearby communities are not far behind in bringing broadband to their residents; they see high-speed Internet as an economic boon akin to rural electrification in the 1930s, one that could bring higher home values, better business climates, and easier access to the modern economy.

These new connections are the culmination of an eight-year, $90 million effort by the state to build a “backbone” of fiber-optic data transmission lines across Western Massachusetts.

The network, financed with state and federal stimulus money, will extend broadband to 45 isolated towns where 40 percent of homes have no Internet access and the rest are relegated to dial-up, DSL, and satellite connections operating at a fraction of speeds available in Eastern Massachusetts.

State and federal economic development officials view access to high-speed Internet as a way to boost rural economies, where traditional industries such as farming, forestry, and paper making have declined, and connect them to 21st-century services, such as online education and telemedicine.

With private telecommunication companies unable to profitably extend their networks to sparsely populated areas, state, federal, and local governments have stepped in.

In Leverett, for example, voters in 2012 approved borrowing $3.6 million — nearly $1,900 per resident — for the town to lay fiber lines to 800 premises and connect to the main trunk built by the state.

“More and more communities understand that high-speed wired Internet access represents critical infrastructure right up there with telephone and roads,” said David Talbot, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. “Community networks are often seen as a way to advance economic development, attract high-tech businesses, cut municipal costs, and bring competition to the market.”

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a quasi-public agency overseeing the Western Massachusetts project, estimates that completing the so-called last mile of fiber that connects end users will cost an additional $112 million. About $50 million will be funded by the state, and the rest from local funds.

About 32 towns have banded together in a group called Wired West, which is working with the broadband institute to build and operate fiber lines to individual buildings.

In recent months, about 19 of Wired West’s towns have approved borrowing a total of $30 million, according to Monica Webb, chairwoman of the collaborative. About five more will vote in few months, she said. All the local funding must be approved by June 2016 to qualify for state money.

Before construction starts in each town, 40 percent of its residents must sign up for service, which starts at $49 a month for speeds similar to Comcast’s basic offering in Boston and rises to $109 for a version that is 40 times faster.

When the fiber networks are completed in the next two to five years, the towns will own them and Wired West, a municipally owned entity, will operate them.

Leverett has contracted a private company to provide Internet service, which will cost subscribers $65 a month. That’s about same as Comcast and Verizon FIOS customers pay in Greater Boston, but the speeds in Leverett are about 10 times faster.

Residents already are witnessing the economic potential of broadband.

Now that her Leverett home is hooked up to the fiber network, Wall has sold her house in Medford, where she lived half the time because her job as a solar energy consultant often required higher speeds than she could get in Leverett.

She’s taking the $170,000 gain she made from the sale and splitting it between her retirement fund and a nonprofit she recently cofounded, the Future Face of American Energy, which will match women and people of color with internships in the energy industry.

In New Marlborough, a Wired West town, filmmaker Douglas Trumbull has already hooked up to the fiber backbone, paying the cost of laying fiber from his studio.

Trumbull is developing a high-resolution, high-frame-rate-viewing technology called Magi, which has required him to build his own server farm to process the images and send hard drives in the mail to studios and other clients because Internet connections were too slow.

He now expects to cut his costs by using cloud computing services to produce and share video.

Gerald Jones, the owner of Jones Group Realtors in Amherst, sells houses in the communities targeted by the state’s broadband initiative.

He said he has given financial support to the broadband committee in Shutesbury and his agents have advised clients in Shutesbury and elsewhere to vote in support of building the networks.

He said a growing number of homebuyers refuse to consider properties that can’t get high-speed Internet.

“It’s gotten more and more important as time has gone on,” Jones said. “It’s as if you had a town with no school system and you were trying to sell a house to someone with kids.”

The completion of the broadband “backbone” may also spur private investment.

Adam Chait, the owner of a small Internet service provider in Monterey, in the southwest corner of the state, said he is raising money to build a network connecting 1,000 homes in Berkshire County as a test to show that private companies can profitably serve remote areas.

He declined to estimate how much he’ll need.

Local officials admit the work of building broadband networks has been complicated, and some benefits, such as new businesses, could take years to appear.

Leverett has created Web pages and information packets to help educate residents about key parts of their new system.

Eric Nakajima, the head of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, said his group’s priority is making sure that towns’ broadband systems were well-maintained and won’t run out of money.

“It is definitely early days,” Nakajima said. “There isn’t really a test case right now in the region or in the state where we can look and say, ‘Let’s evaluate.’ ”