Gov. Charlie Baker got an earful this weekend about the state’s effort to bring broadband Internet to Franklin County, and deservedly so. Communities with no broadband or limited fiber-optic service continue to wait, even as the governor and others elsewhere in the state avail themselves of the latest technology, including impressive speeds for downloads and uploads.
Baker, in fact, spoke on Saturday at state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg’s conference for municipal officials from Franklin and Hampshire counties at Greenfield Community College via Skype — a broadband service many of those municipal officials couldn’t have accessed from their homes. This only reinforced the disconnect that many area officials feel with the state’s slow “last mile” broadband rollout.
Under both Baker and former Gov. Deval Patrick there hasn’t been a sense of urgency to bring unserved and underserved communities up to speed. While densely populated communities in Massachusetts have been able to rely on private cable providers, towns without the population to create a significant subscriber base have gone without.
This lack of reliable and up-to-date Internet service has hurt our communities, particularly with economic development. Without such service, existing companies have a hard time expanding and towns have trouble attracting new business and new younger residents to the area. And this lack of broadband has slowed the growth of home-based entrepreneurs who can use high-speed service to better serve existing clients and customers.
Business development, however, is just part of the story. Home sales are affected because modern Internet service, common elsewhere, isn’t available for web-hungry newcomers. Students, too, find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to do homework, communicate via email or use their school’s website.
“Our towns are dying,” Heath Planning Board member Calvin Carr told Baker. “Populations are going down, school enrollment is going down, which means taxes go up and people can’t sell their houses.
“These towns really will wither on the vine, and that would be a shame.”
While broadband is not an economic cure-all, it’s importance for rural communities cannot be understated. It is a lifeline — albeit an expensive one, where miles of cable outnumber the people who live along the roads below the wires.
Bringing broadband where it doesn’t exist hasn’t been a state priority perhaps because people elsewhere can’t imagine that it’s not available. That, or too many people, including many in state government, hold out hope that a less expensive, private enterprise option is just around the bend.
We’d hate to think this is what’s behind the latest delays in the state’s approval of funding for “last mile” proposals such as WiredWest’s plans for a multi-town cooperative or Montague’s desire to hire an out-of-state company to handle the parts of town without fiber-optic cable.
The Baker administration and Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the state agency charged with oversight of the “last mile” expansion, should be doing a better job of communicating what’s holding things up. Gov. Baker says he understands the frustration, and he told the conference crowd he would be happy to meet with people at the Statehouse to find a solution. Our municipal officials and legislative delegation should take Baker up on his offer to meet. It’s time for the entire state to enjoy broadband.