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Patrick to seek funds to improve broadband

Date: 6/2/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Does your community have broadband access -- from one carrier or none? Gov. Deval Patrick announced last week he will be seeking federal recovery funding to expand broadband services to the western part of the state.

Over 25,000 businesses and 221,000 households in 95 communities either have limited or no broadband services. Patrick made the announcement in New Salem last week, which is one of those communities.

According to information from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, Western Massachusetts lags behind most of the eastern and central parts of the state in broadband access. Although much of Hampden County has access to two broadband suppliers -- the exception is West Springfield, which the state has classified as "underserved" -- the county hasn't reached the "competitive" level of having three or more suppliers that Boston has reached.

Hampshire County has service that varies from two providers to underserved. The broadband map of the four western counties shows that the greatest number of towns with no service or little service are in Franklin and Berkshire counties.

Patrick views this effort to increase broadband access as a key economic development issue, Sharon Gillett, the director of the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative (MBI), explained to Reminder Publications.

She said the governor describes it as the "21st century equilvalent of the Rural Electricfication Act," which brought electrical service to southern states in the 1930s.

The first step in this issue is to develop a more accurate broadband map of the area, she said. To do so, there is now a Google mapping tool that allows residents and businesses to locate their home or business and enter their current Internet access.

"More accurate mapping will help us to speed deployment of broadband in unserved areas of the state," she said. "Residents, business owners and others can now communicate directly with the MBI regarding their access or lack of access to broadband at the street address level, which will help us determine how to deploy broadband infrastructure and technologies."

Gillett said the current effort began last August with the creation of a $40 million broadband initiative fund in the state. She explained the state seeks to partner with private companies to make the investment in broadband infrastructure. That public/private collaboration would eventually lead to the creation of wireless towers and fiber optic networks for Internet access.

This funding would be combined with money the state could receive through federal stimulus funds. Gillett said the state will apply for part of the $4.7 billion competitive federal grant for broadband expansion later this summer.

Gillett said the goal is to have a first tier effort to bring wireless high speed "hot spots" to the underserved communities.

"The short form can't be soon enough," Gillett said. "We will do the best we can within 2011."

The priority will be given to communities with no access, she said. She added that when Internet networks are built through one community to reach another, additional service will be available to the towns and cities through which the infrastructure runs. The result will be more service and more competition, she said.

"[It] always spills over to other communities," she said. "It's a nice side effect."