Gov. Deval Patrick celebrated the 'lighting up' of fiber optics in Otis on Thursday.
OTIS, Mass. — If a teacher pulled up a YouTube video for students at Farmington River Elementary School, every classroom's DSL connection bogged down. But now, the buffering, buffering, buffering is gone.
The MassBroadband Institute has been installing fiber-optic cable across the state — connecting rural towns to high-speed Internet. The "middle mile" is 75 percent complete and the first section was lit up on Thursday at Farmington, one of 1,200 "anchor" sites in Western Massachusetts.
Gov. Deval Patrick and a host of elected officials crowded the school to celebrate the "lighting up" and the beginning of a network running across the state.
The final connections are expected to made by this summer.
The capabilities of the system was shown off by a Skype demonstration in which fifth-graders chatted with NASA and another class in Colombia.
"High-speed broadband is as necessary in this 21st century, global economy as roads and bridges. It is an educational necessity, a medical necessity, a public safety necessity, a commercial necessity and frankly a competitive necessity," Patrick said. "We can no more afford to have a community without access to broadband than we can afford to have a community without access to a good school or a safe road."
The state put aside $40 million in bonds in 2008 to start connecting Western Mass. to broadband and created MBI. In 2010, the federal government earmarked $45.3 million more in stimulus funds to continue the process.
The first task was the "middle mile," or backbone of the network, which was laid across the region and connecting anchors such as schools and municipal buildings. MBI worked with utility companies to have access to 33,000 poles to lay the wire that will connect the 1,200 facilities in the western part of the state, said MBI Director Judy Dumont.
The process took a long time and included many partners. Former U.S. Rep. John Olver recapped the history to Berkshire Connect in 2006. It was in 2007 when Patrick stepped in and committed to making the investment, he said.
"We worked together to do big things. We aren't done with it, we've got more work to do and with the people in this room we are going to get it done," state Sen. Benjamin Downing said, adding that when it is done, all children will have the same access to information.
The government had to step in because the private sector wouldn't bring the connections out there, said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, but globalization "isn't going to retreat." Students need that access in order to be able to compete for jobs in the future, he said.
"This is a long-term investment. The private sector examined this from A to Z. If they could have done it with a reasonable margin of profit, they would have done it. They came to the conclusion that they couldn't do it. So the government filled the void," Neal said.
Before now, teachers would have to coordinate Internet usage because the entire school had a download speed of 2 MB per minute, school Technical Director Laurie Flower said. If two teachers were trying to show a video at once, the entire system would slow down.
The next step is to bring the wiring to individual homes. Patrick has submitted another bond bill for about $40 million to bring the fiber optics from the middle mile to homes. But in that process, private companies will take a larger role.
"Private companies take a bigger share of the last mile," Patrick said. "This middle mile brings that cost down so it makes it more attractive for private companies to come in."
Dumont expects that it would take at least three more years from when the funding is approved before that aspect is completed.
"We are not planning on doing the last mile on our own. We plan on bringing in the private sector," she said.
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