By Bill Densmore
The Greylock region isn’t on any physical superhighways, but a group of citizens and experts met June 10 at the Milne Public Library in Williamstown to discuss how to make sure its residents and businesses are on the fastest of information superhighways. This roundtable was organized by Citizen Media, Inc., the nonprofit publisher of The Greylock Independent.
The Greylock region is blessed with a spectacular environment. Its former reputation as physically isolated can now become a great strength and draw—a place where efficient, intense creativity can be blended with tranquility, community and physical beauty. But the growth of our knowledge and arts economy will be slowed or stopped if a key enabling element—Internet connectivity—is sub par. At present, Williamstown residents can connect to the Internet via Verizon’s copper phone lines using a technology called “DSL”. It typically runs at speeds of 3 megabits/second or less at standard pricing of about $40/month. That speed level is not defined by the Federal Communications Commission as “broadband.” In Williamstown, North Adams and Adams, our only broadband supplier is Time Warner, which delivers as the standard speed, a 50 megabit service advertised at $69 a month. By contrast, in Worcester, Mass., a standard residential subscriber to Internet broadband service supplied by Charter Cable can run at 65 megabits per second, costing $51 a month.
But Williamstown and North Adams have something available that residents of Worcester do not—their towns are served by MassBroadband 123, a fiber optic cable system already installed by the state that presently serves the key institutions in our area. A fiber-optic spur from this system presently runs up Routes 20 and 7 to Williamstown and over to North Adams and Adams, capable of making 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) of speed available to thousands of the region’s homes, with the result that businesses and people working at home could locate in our area and work as if they were sitting next to colleagues in a high-tech center anywhere in the world. “Speeds of gigabit+ erase the distance between a desk in Williamstown and a desk in Singapore,” says Ben Greenfield, one of the panel experts at the June 10 meeting.
The challenge for our area is getting this superior internet speed and capacity that our key institutions already have, to an unlimited number of individual entrepreneurs and private residencies. The expert group, including representatives from companies that have set up broadband networks in other towns in the state, presented various ideas for making this happen. Several argued that the towns should own their own cable broadband system, with open access to the Internet, rather than contracting with an outside company. With our present contracting with Time Warner, we get the bandwidth free, but not enough power to serve many people getting on the Internet at the same time. Other points made: Unlimited access to health care on line, is a huge priority for our region; costs and capacities can be shared across towns; present companies, like Time Warner, are disinvesting and trying to merge with others, with the goal of having customers who pay bills, not be participants in the Internet system.
The audience raised a lot of questions—how to assess internet needs and for whom, whether for individuals, a town or the region; how identify potential users of a restructured Internet system; how a town would pay for such a system and make decisions about costs and savings; availability of state and federal funding; how to partner with other towns in our area; whether, considering costs, to adopt a piece-meal approach or set up the system all at once; how to appeal to both young professionals who need more and faster internet access and to seniors (health care needs span all age and economic groups); how to determine operating expenses and capital cost. All agreed that we have to have another public meeting. Stay tuned.
Link to willinet.org video of entire meeting: http://www.willinet.org/content/conversation-about-connections-can-greylock-region-keep-digital-economy-0
Participants: Don Dubendorf, a Williamstown attorney, was among key people who organized the use of federal and state grants to make use of fiber optic cables running along the Massachusetts Turnpike over the last decade. Ben Greenfield, of Cogs Inc. Williamstown is Director of Technology at the Calder Foundation, NY, and has 24 years experience building interactive systems for businesses, museums, and individuals. Adam Chait is account manager for Berkshire Fiber Connect, Great Barrington.
Mark Bouvier is sales director for Axia NGNetworks, Boston, a private company that contracted to run the MassBroadband 123 fiber network. Bill Stathis, Crocker Communications, Springfield, Mass., operates the town-owned broadband network in Leverett, near Amherst. Teresa Martin, CEO of technology companies in Silicon Valley and metro Boston, consults and writes about technology and community. Bill Densmore, Moderator