Lt. Gov. Polito greets MBI Chairman Peter Larkin in West Stockbridge.
WEST STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — Jim and Jennifer Hallock took ownership of the Shaker Mill Tavern Family Smoke House almost a year ago.
They envisioned more of a family restaurant than the bar operations of the previous owners and even built out a children's area.
But being snuggled in the rural town of West Stockbridge, they had limited access to the internet.
"My whole computer system works on the internet. DSL was so random," Jim Hallock said.
Workers would scan a credit card for payment and the system would lag, slowing the business down. And then seemingly randomly, with a restaurant filled with customers, the entire system would fail. Orders couldn't get placed, checks couldn't get printed.
Next door, Bob and Mary Thibeault have owned The Shaker Mill Inn for a decade. They remember when having any type of internet was a luxury, helping to attract visitors to the bed and breakfast. Now, patrons expect it. They need it for their tech-savvy children to download videos and games. They it for those traveling for work. And the Thibeaults would have the same issues with delays and the system crashing.
"If they don't have good access to connectivity, they'll go somewhere else," Bob Thibeault said.
Those are just a couple of the stories Gov. Charlie Baker heard on Tuesday when he toured a half-dozen West Stockbridge businesses. Last summer, he released a $1.6 million grant to incentivize Charter Communication's rollout of high-speed internet to West Stockbridge, Lanesborough, and Hinsdale. Now, he wants to know if those problems are still present.
"We've been working for the past year or so to really kick the last mile project into overdrive. I know people have done a lot of work since last summer and I was curious and wanted to talk to some of the folks who were the primary customers for this," Baker said. "I know a number of folks here were particularly excited about it and I wanted to hear what they had to say."
The Hallocks say their headaches have gone away and they're paying a whole lot less. Previously, they were paying for television, the internet, and phone services separately and that cost upward of $700 and now they have a bundled price for all three at around $350.
"It's been working beautifully. It makes all of the difference," said Lisa Landry, who co-owns the No. Six Depot coffee shop. "I think more businesses will come here if they know they can rely on it."
Joseph P. Roy runs the Floor Store and internet access has given him a greater ability to meet with clients. The store handles most of its sales online and Charter's rollout has created the ability to send contracts back and forth with clients and send large files.
And it isn't just about businesses. Sheila and Randy Thunfors of Stone Hill Properties told Baker a story of a client who had purchased a home years ago for some $800,000 but because the residence doesn't have internet access,had to sell it for a half-million dollars less.
Deputy Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Carolyn Kirk said high-speed internet access is no longer a luxury.
"The transformative nature of having high-speed internet access is just unquestioned in today's day and age," Kirk said, adding that over and over again citizens were "crying out" for it.
"Having broadband is the equivalent to having electricity 100 years ago."
Bringing broadband to the rural towns of Western Massachusetts has been a long and drawn-out process. It began more than 10 years ago. In 2007, the state government created the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, which was coupled with a $40 million grant to connect all corners of the commonwealth.
But then the wheels began spinning when trying to find ways to complete the last mile, bringing broadband internet to homes. When Baker took office, he put a temporary halt on the program to rethink it. He rolled out a plan loosening some of the restrictions on the program to allow for additional options — such as a Charter or Comcast expansion. It lifted a restriction requiring fiber wire to every individual home.
Lisa Landry told the governor that high-speed internet made a significant different in her business.
"We've found some good partners to work with in the private sector and found a variety of alternatives, depending on which community you are from what you can pursue, and our goal at this point is to get everybody wired," Baker said.
Kirk said 85 percent of the households in the 53 unserved and underserved towns now have a path to high-speed internet. Comcast expanded in nine towns and Charter expanded in West Stockbridge, Lanesborough and Hinsdale.
Six others, including Otis and Mount Washington, have grants to build out their own networks.
"In total, we have about 27,000 premises and we have a path for 85 percent. We need to find a path for another 5,000 premises sprinkled in different towns," Kirk said. "We are not finished yet but we have made a lot of progress in the past year."
Otis and Mount Washington are expected to be lit up this fall and Kirk says every few months from then on more and more towns will be connected.
"We believe that every citizen in every town that wants it, should have it," Kirk said.
Baker said there is no specific timeline on when the expansion will be complete because many of the decisions are outside of the administration's realm. The towns still have to choose and there has to be willing partners and programs in place. But, he said he is being "very aggressive" in finishing the long-awaited broadband project.
"The goal at this point is to get everybody connected as quickly as we can," Baker said.
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