Pleas for highspeed and wireless Internet await broadband chief


when teresa martin, head of the Cape Cod Technology Council, moved from Palo Alto, Calif., to become chief operating officer of a South Shore software company six years ago, she was eager for a new challenge, but not for the one she found when she got here. Her office was equipped with the 21st-century equivalent of the hand-crank telephone—dialup Internet.

“It was pretty dramatic. My first response was, ‘They’re not serious about business here,’” she says. “When you look at issues of economic development, you have to have infrastructure, and in this century, it’s the ability to deliver lots of data fast.”

In an age when even car mechanics need high-speed Internet connections to do their jobs, broadband access is no longer a luxury; it’s a requirement for economic growth. But in a state considered to be a high-tech player, broadband access and wireless connectivity are surprisingly uneven, especially beyond the Boston suburbs. Outside of I-495, there’s talk of a Digital Divide, with the hinterlands relegated to the modern-day equivalent of the Pony Express.

So expectations are high for the state’s new director of broadband affairs, to be based in the Executive Office of Economic Development. The broadband czar, still to be named, will have the mission of developing a telecommunications Marshall Plan that includes affordable broadband and wireless access for all communities in the state.

The new post is part of an economic stimulus package passed by the Legislature last summer. The legislation also established a Wireless and Broadband Development Council comprised of industry representatives and regional agencies, to be headed by the executive director of the John Adams Innovation Institute of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative—an independent economic development agency focused on creating a more favorable environment for technology-related enterprises.

The Adams Institute already administers a $15 million regional fund to support regional economic development projects, including some broadband initiatives. But the new legislation also establishes a $1 million Wireless and Broadband Development Fund to promote broadband deployment throughout Massachusetts.

The new director will have two columns on the to-do list, one short-term (raising levels of service across the state) and the other long-term (developing a strategy to promote growth in the telecom infrastructure), says Bill Ennen, a program manager at the Adams Institute. “The job will be trying to work with regional and local issues and still have a statewide perspective,” he says.

The state commitment is welcome news in underserved communities across the state, and there are plenty of them. A study conducted by the nonprofit groups Berkshire Connect and Pioneer Valley Connect found that 35 of the 101 communities in the four counties of western Massachusetts have little or no broadband service, relying instead on individual satellite dish installations or low-speed dialup service. The high capital costs of wiring sparsely populated towns make it unlikely that the marketplace will ever provide such services.

Cape Cod has broadband, but Martin says that its limited data pipeline is hampering all kinds of activities, from business expansion in Truro to climate change research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

“I’ve heard the Cape has the highest percentage of microbusinesses in the state,” says Martin. “But they leave and take the business elsewhere. There’s a perception that they can’t grow here.”

A limited data pipeline hampers business growth.

So business, education, and municipal leaders are collaborating on Open Cape, a $2.3 million project to upgrade the data pipe in a region that encompasses Cape Cod and much of southeastern Massachusetts, from Plymouth to Provincetown and from Falmouth to Dartmouth. The group is seeking funding from local, state, and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security.

All of this suggests that the new $1 million state fund is not likely to go very far, particularly given the range of telecom issues, which in turn suggests a variety of solutions. In rural western Massachusetts, for example, Berkshire Connect aggregated demand from more than 50 business owners, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits to negotiate broadband access at a competitive price. Now, Pioneer Valley Connect is trying a similar approach in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

In urban areas, the emphasis is on enhancing wireless access. The city of Boston is moving forward with the formation of a nonprofit to raise up to $20 million to build and operate a wireless network. Smaller cities, too, see wireless as a key to their economic future. Even the struggling city of Springfield managed to come up with $30,000 to study the potential economic impact of building a wireless network.

Meanwhile, in the Boston suburbs, Verizon is hoping that the broadband director will help the company break into the cable television business, now governed by town-by-town franchise agreements, so that it can use a new fiber-optic network to compete with Comcast and other telephone/ Internet/cable carriers.

In smaller towns, wireless access often depends on a geek with a few bucks and a dream. Frustrated by the lack of wireless in his town, South Deerfield entrepreneur Max Hartshorne bought a $600 router and installed a wireless hotspot on the common across from his Internet café. (The town put a plaque on a tree noting the contribution.)

“I wanted to make a statement about how we should have WiFi, that it should be available,” says Hartshorne, who owns the travel Web site “I travel all over the world, and you see it everywhere. We’re so far behind other countries in all these areas. It’s insane.”

Perhaps the most promising wireless project in the state is Unwired Village, a replicable, branded, broadband wireless access package designed by the Cape Cod Technology Council, with funding from the Adams Institute. The council put together a hardware and open-source software package, educational materials, and a business plan, all of which can be purchased for $10,000 to $20,000. The pilot wireless hotspot is running in downtown Orleans, and Unwired Village packages will soon be rolled out in Falmouth and Buzzards Bay.

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The idea, says Martin, is to create a chain of Unwired Villages across the state, identifiable on road maps and even on highway signage. “This is like having street lights,” she says. “If you’re going to have a business district that is welcoming to people who are doing microbusinesses, members of the innovation economy, this is stuff they expect to have as a matter of course.”

Will a state broadband director make this stuff a matter of course? That remains to be seen. But having one, says Martin, will send a signal. “This tells business, industry, and all those sectors of the innovation economy that we’re serious about providing a 21st-century infrastructure,” she says.