The following is the final excerpt from our recently-released Western Franklin County Business Report – the first report in our Rural Commonwealth Business Series. Over the last several Wednesdays, we have been posting sections of the report that highlight key themes that came up during more than 40 hours of interviews with local business owners. (Our previous posts in this series looked at three-phase power and electrical grid issues and the five kinds of marketing assistance needed by West County businesses, a need for more lodging, and business staffing). The full report, which you can download as a PDF here, includes an overview of our research into the Western Franklin County business community and outlines the economic development projects we are now launching based on our research and interviews.
West County is among the rural areas of Massachusetts that continues to lack ubiquitous broadband access. This mirrors a problem facing rural areas of the United States generally, though some states have found creative solutions to this economic stumbling block.
Almost every business we interviewed complained about the lack of broadband access. Those with means and dire necessity bought their own access. Zoar Outdoor paid $10,000 to connect directly to the MBI Middle Mile 123. Berkshire East likewise paid for its own internet system, but could use more. The owners of 90 Main, a restaurant in Charlemont, pay $180 per month for internet access that only allows them to send credit card purchases out. They have no internet access for customers. Similarly, Sidehill Farm in Hawley relies on a hotspot from a 30GB AT&T cell phone contract. They have this jerry-rigged system only because they have line-of-sight to a cell tower.
While Massachusetts is working at glacial speed to improve broadband in West County, several things are clear:
- Broadband is needed by all businesses now. The rapidly deteriorating DSL network and intermittent satellite access is barely maintaining a sluggish status quo. For business growth and new business start-ups, highspeed broadband is needed to allow this rural area to compete.
- Anything less than full coverage for West County will deprive some existing businesses and limit new business start-ups in underdeveloped locations. Less than full coverage is woefully shortsighted.
- All of this will take more funds, up to $40 million, to complete. As design work is accomplished in many West County towns, the true additional cost will emerge. Adding huge bond debt for small towns is not a rational fiscal solution. It is up to the governor and the legislature to fund this unfinished task.
As any day tripper to West County knows, cell service in all towns is spotty at best. The utilities that supply cell coverage have ignored pleas from businesses and petitions from taxpayers to provide universal cell coverage. The recreation companies hear daily complaints from customers that there is no way to contact family members at home. Texts and emails are not available to tourists and residents alike.
Some regulatory pressure might cause these utilities that operate under federal license and state oversight to see the necessity of cell coverage for all.