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Politics apparently tying up broadband access in Western Massachusetts

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It’s hard to participate in the 21st century economy without broadband access, but many rural Americans are stuck with dial-up, satellite, or DSL. It’s no small part of the migration of young people to cities.

If you want an idea as to why this is happening, consider the example of western Massachusetts, where politics are delaying a plan to bring fiber-optic connections to tens of thousands of residents. Susan Crawford wrote a Backchannel article last week outlining the problem, and it’s a story of never-ending delay.

In 2009, the state used some stimulus money to set up a series of fiber-optic cables in the western part of the state through an effort called MassBroadband 123. This network is a backbone of fiber connecting the region, but does not reach the “last mile” to individual houses and businesses. Cities are responsible for setting that up, whether by contracting with an ISP or building their own offering.

Forty-five towns are working together to get this done as a co-op called Wired West. By working together, the towns aim to reduce costs overall and offer fiber Internet to residents. For a long time, it looked like this plan would go forward, but it’s now being held up by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which tabled any decision on the project.

“The current draft WiredWest operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the Commonwealth, the towns, or their residents,” said an MBI report on the project. MBI currently has no other plans on the table.

WiredWest has been working on its plans since 2010, when they were formed, and seemed on track to get the job done. But since Republican Charlie Baker won the governership of the state in 2015, progress has stalled. Eric Nakajima, who took over MBI after the election, said there are flaws in WiredWest’s business model, and has stated a preference for individual towns working alone. Consultants hired by the state agree with this assessment; consultants hired by WiredWest do not.

It’s a lot to parse, and if you’re interested, you should really read the full report from Harvard on the situation. It’s a great example of the sort of politics that keep America’s rural residents from really taking advantage of the broadband many of us take for granted.

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