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Franklin County residents attest to struggles of remote work without broadband

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2020 4:20:56 PM
Modified: 4/8/2020 4:20:42 PM

In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, more Franklin County residents are working from home, at the same time more students are being asked to submit digital coursework. But for residents living without broadband, working remotely is often easier said than done.

Officials in some towns, including Hawley and Leyden, attest to residents working from their cars outside public buildings where Wi-Fi is accessible, but note that the increased demand has led to slower service. The same sentiment is echoed is Ashfield, where residents have noticed satellite internet quality has continually worsened.

Or, more drastically, as is the case for at least one Heath college student, residents have opted to leave town altogether in search of adequate service during this period of remote work.

Ashfield

Ashfield Technology Committee Chair David Kulp said residents are struggling with internet access in their quest to work remotely. Satellite internet is proving particularly problematic.

“HughesNet claims that they have lifted their bandwidth caps and improved access to cloud and education resources, but I don’t notice it,” Kulp said.

He said, instead, he has experienced a “continued degrading of performance” over the last two weeks on satellite. Other residents with Verizon digital subscriber line service have also noticed that performance has worsened.

“In my house there are two students and myself all trying to hold simultaneous Zoom calls over a high-latency, unreliable satellite link,” Kulp said. “It can be painful. Although we get by.”

In Ashfield, Sanderson Academy and Town Hall are creating public Wi-Fi access outside. Additionally, construction of a fiber optic network in Ashfield is underway.

“It is tantalizingly close, but the first hookups aren’t expected until late April at the earliest,” Kulp said.

Nevertheless, knowing that social distancing restrictions may last for months, Kulp said the contractor, Westfield Gas & Electric, has developed new weatherproof boxes that will contain equipment for fiber installation on the exterior of a house without requiring an installer to enter a home. This may start as early as next week in Plainfield and New Salem.

Hawley

While broadband internet is expected to arrive in Hawley for the fall, residents currently relying on satellite network connections may be less productive than desired.

“Those of us who have those satellite services know how it could be very difficult to work from home using them,” said Lark Thwing, chair of the town Broadband Committee.

While Thwing said he has not received much residential feedback on whether they are able to get their work done with limited internet service, he did note that, currently, most people in the community either “don’t have internet at all or they have a satellite network.” His niece, a schoolteacher, has elected to work from outside Town Hall, where there is a guest network that anyone can access.

Thwing also works with the Four-Town Wireless Broadband Project. The project covers Florida, Hawley, Monroe and Savoy, and has been pursuing broadband for the communities for over a decade. The project is designed, built and managed by WiValley, OTELCO and Interisle, and funded by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

WiValley, Thwing said, has conducted similar projects in neighboring states, but on a smaller scale than for all four towns. After roughly a year working through legal requirements, they began building infrastructure for the broadband service in March 2019.

“We will probably finish building sometime in the late summer or early fall of this year,” Thwing said.

Heath

According to Heath Broadband Committee Chair Art Schwenger, the only broadband connection in town is at Town Hall. He said, like Hawley, many residents have a satellite network connection.

“From the broadband perspective, it would be a lot easier to deal with this crisis if we had it, for sure,” Schwenger said.

He said Verizon had installed DSL a few years ago, but this only serves a portion of town. When asked if residents were having a hard time getting work done from home, Schwenger said he hadn’t personally received much feedback about trouble, or lack thereof.

“Most people are staying home and working out in their yards,” he said.

According to a broadband update on Heath’s town website, the Broadband Committee is working to build a 1 gigabyte internet system. This will enable residents to access high-speed internet, work from home, and stream movies or television shows. Current schedules indicate homes in Heath will be “live” by the end of December. The first Heath customers may have service in July.

Town Coordinator Hilma Sumner said she is was also unsure of individual residents’ current abilities to conduct work at home. However, she has heard from parents of students, both at the high school and college levels, who are struggling to get their school work done. Nearly all of the students’ work requires internet to access resources or submit assignments.

“We have at least one college student that I believe had to leave town and find somewhere else to live for the time being because he was not able to do his college work online,” Sumner said. “In that respect, it’s a challenge for families in Heath.”

She pointed out that Wi-Fi is available at Town Hall, and some residents have been taking advantage of the connection from the parking lot.

“We have one high school student out there every morning doing his work because he doesn’t have the internet capabilities at home,” she said.

Leyden

Bob Ryan, Leyden’s Broadband Committee chair, said Westfield Gas & Electric offered to increase internet speeds from 2 megabytes to 250 megabytes at no charge, after the company became aware of the number of residents working off the Wi-Fi connection.

“It is tough for those working from home right now,” Ryan said. “There are cars parking outside Town Hall or the library, but the problem is the network is not strong enough to service them all.”

Ryan said this offer is being made for Western Massachusetts communities that do not have the construction phase of their broadband network completed.

According to Ryan, Robertson Memorial Library, Town Hall and town offices at the former Pearl Rhodes Elementary School all have high-speed internet. He said only the Pearl Rhodes building will get the increased speeds.

Leyden’s broadband service moved one step closer to completion last week with the delivery of a “telecommunications hut” that will eventually house the electronics required to control and maintain the new internet and telephone system. Once broadband is up and running, Ryan said it will be a 1-gigabyte network.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.



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