By Ben Greenfield
. . .is to improve the quality and lower the cost of internet access. Our town population is over 50% knowledge workers, and knowledge can be easily imported and exported using this communication media. The great thing about internet access is that it can be buried underground or hung on the ubiquitous utility poles for almost invisible development.
When I reflect on my early internet/network experience, I want to point out some obvious features. The internet removes the constraint of physical location between connected points. Higher speeds for data and more availability create new applications that are, in turn, faster and more widely available. The leased line I used at my college library for research in 1991 was slower than my home connection by 1995. The tools I used in 1992 were designed for text and beeps; if you could do it with text or a beep it would work on the internet. The world wide web was originally text only. People today confronted with the original world wide web would probably report that their computers were broken.
The internet became faster and it became possible to start sending pictures with text as a single unit that could be viewed simultaneously by the user. The other feature regarding availability was that people could, and wanted to, connect to the internet from their homes. When I moved to New York City in 1991, I connected to the internet by taking an NYU night class in the Computer Science Department, that offered an account on a computer connected to the internet that I could visit in the basement off Washington Square. 1992-93ish, a public internet service provider started in New York that I subscribed to and connected to with the a modem. The more people that connect to the internet the more valuable the internet becomes. Consider, for example, how valuable google would be if only a few people connected to the internet. And with more capacity comes new services. Consider, for example, whether youtube would be as popular as it is today, if available only over dial-up.
These ideas can be encapsulated in a law called Metcalfe’s Law—“The value of network is proportional to the square of connected nodes.” Explanation: The term Ethernet refers to a networking standard introduced in 1980 that has been pushed, pulled, and mutilated but is still around today and used to connect people to the internet. Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet at Xerox Parc. When asked what value Ethernet had, he replied with what became Metcalfe’s Law—the value of any network depends on the amount of connections available.
I bring this up because, in order to maximize the value of a network here, I want Williamstown to install fiber optic cables to every address in town. Western Massachusetts has been historically neglected by the phone/cable companies. But through quasi-public/private partnerships, a network infrastructure has already been installed in multiple locations in Williamstown and designed to connect our neighborhoods to the internet in the most modern way possible. The first town to take advantage of this was Leverett, MA, a Western Mass town that is the first to connect to the new infrastructure. So far things have been going great. In less than a year of new internet service, the price has dropped and the available speed of service has doubled. There are 3 or 4 other towns with similar plans at various stages of development in Western Massachusetts.
I believe Williamstown, with a modern cost-effective connection to the internet, could compete in attracting remote workers from high-cost megalopolises. We don’t need to attract more than a couple of hundred couples to make a big difference.
What can you do to help out with this effort? Currently Williamstown Town Hall is actively gathering information from network vendors. The intention is to develop an informed public discussion on the practicality of building such a network. I’m sure this task will be given the same public treatment as the recent Economic Development Committee study, which had many public forums. Look for those opportunities to add your voice and specific questions or ideas. I’m all ears.
[Ben Greenfield, of Cogs Inc., has 25 years of experience building interactive systems for businesses, museums, and individuals. He is Director of Technology at the Calder Foundation in New York, and lives in Williamstown. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. In the July 2015 issue of The Greylock Independent, he published an article on this same subject. See http://greylockindependent.com/2015/07/how-williamstown-can-build-its-own-broadband-network-open-to-all/]