Wired West Continues Push For Hilltown Access

By Nichole DupontiBerkshires Staff
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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — There's no doubt that visitors find the Berkshires a charming, bucolic slice of New England life. In fact, much of Western Massachusetts relies on its rustic charm to generate much-needed economic dollars.

While visitors from Boston, New York and all parts of the globe are drawn to a rural life dotted with major cultural venues, not many will want to set up shop here nor will many young people want to stay in their native hilltowns, says Monica Webb.

The reason, said Webb, co-chairman and spokeswoman for WiredWest, is that this side of the state is not wired for the present, much less the future. Many hilltowns in the area still do not have access to a high-speed, high-volume Internet connection, making online business and communication next to impossible.

Webb herself should know. As a Monterey resident, she relies on a satellite connection for her Internet access. More often than not, having a reliable connection is a gamble for her and thousands of area residents.

"I do have satellite and although I hear a lot from people that the weather affects their connection, that's less of an issue for me than the integrity of the system itself," she said in a phone interview. "If it goes out, they have to send a technician out to fix it and that can take up to a week. I've had to sit on the steps of the library twice a day to send and receive emails and I know I'm not the only one who's doing this. Even with the satellite, I've had to send three separate emails to people because a file was too big. This is really no way to conduct a business."

Webb's quest for reliable Internet is not one that she is making alone. Thus far, WiredWest, a community cooperative with the mission of designing, building and operating a last-mile, open-access, community-owned, fiber-optic network, has been given the nod by 47 towns (via special town meeting votes) to continue to fight for a network that includes Internet, phone and cable access. The town of Florida is amount them. Webb said she is confident that many of the towns will approve the necessary second vote at annual town meetings next month.

"We've got 47 towns that have opted to join the organization and have been part of the discussions," she said. "Of those, about 30 are actively pursuing the government structure required to join Wired West, which requires two votes at two town meetings. In July, we will have the meeting to form our cooperative and we're hoping that at least a couple of dozen towns will join after that. We already have our recommended articles of incorporation and bylaws so that once this is formed it can be acted on quickly."

Fiber Now! New video of Western Mass residents on the need for a fiber-to-the-home network: from Tim Newman on Vimeo.

While Webb has no definite timeline as to how and when WiredWest will go about the task of setting up its foundational lines, she said time, especially in an economy that relies so heavily on Internet communication, is of the essence for every facet of the Berkshire community.

"If I were to break this down into four key factors I would say that regional economic development, education, health care and making sure our populations remain diverse are our top priorities," she said. "It's not easy for someone of my age [early 40s] to understand how important having Internet communication is to education. It's critical for students in our area. We don't want to be a step behind other schools."

Webb is not the only one to attest to the critical need for access in schools and for local business owners. Wired West has compiled a 17-minute video filled with interviews from all sectors of the Berkshire economy. Teachers, real estate agents, students and nonprofit leaders each attest to the necessity of broadband and the ramifications of not being able to offer it to potential homebuyers, visitors and businesses.

"The network is the new currency of the business world," she said. "If we wait for companies to leave before we realize how much we need it, than it's too late. All over the country site selection specialists have two things that they look for first — labor and does the region have a fiber network. I know that people wonder why we can't just use wireless instead but there are many physical limitations of sending data through the air.

"I try to tell people, imagine that you are at the top of a hill with two pails of water and you want the water to go to the bottom of the hill. Dump one directly on the ground and then pour another down a pipe that is running downhill. That's the difference between fiber and wireless. And besides, fiber sets the foundation for wireless. Wireless will never have the capacity to run a business."
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