Berkshire Connect task force to improve local internet access

Faced with high costs for Internet access, local legislators, civic and business leaders have formed a task force dedicated to providing the Berkshire region with affordable, high quality Internet access.

An article in the January 3, 1999 issue of The New York Times reported that although the Internet can make the geographical location of a company irrelevant, location can be a tremendous factor in determining access to the Internet. Companies in the Berkshire region must pay two or three times the amount for high-speed connections that they would pay in Boston, Albany or Springfield. This discrepancy will soon change, if Berkshire Connect has its way.

Berkshire Connect is a task force comprised of people from different parts of the community with a stake in improving Internet access to the region. “This was initiated by a combination of the business community – specifically the Berkshire Legislative Commission and the Governor’s office — and economic development participants in the county,” said Donald Dubendorf ’75, an attorney in Williamstown and the chair of Berkshire Connect’s steering committee. “The goal is to provide high quality service at lower cost than is currently available, and that’s an ongoing goal,” he said.

Two major players have made Berkshire County a technology-intensive region over the past few years. Tripod, located in Williamstown, is one of the most visited sites on the Internet, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA) in North Adams places a special emphasis on the uses of technology as they relate to art. Both have created a greater need for Internet access in the region.

Still, Berkshire Connect’s goals do not focus exclusively on local businesses. “The problem is we pay way too much for lower quality service,” Dubendorf said. “We think we have an obligation to provide those who cannot afford it with high quality access. If you think only about this problem as a problem of supply you miss the point.” Among the institutions that would benefit from improved access are schools and libraries. “This has to do with the quality of education,” he said.

The cost of Internet access in Berkshire County is so high because the region is sparsely populated and telephone companies do not see the demand to justify laying new cables that would cut the cost. Among the steps Berkshire County is currently examining is the possibility of laying its own cable.

New cable would mean lower Internet expenses for businesses and homes throughout the Berkshire Region, but MassMoCA would be one of the primary beneficiaries. In addition to exhibitions and performing arts, MassMoCA intends to offer office space to technology-related companies. Brett McDowell, the information and media technology director at MassMoCA, told the Times that the cost of providing the offices with adequate technological capability, including video teleconferencing, would cost approximately $35,000 a month. “If Berkshire Connect succeeds in building its own line, the cost would be the same as Boston or New York,” he said.

Berkshire Connect is expected to announce a business plan soon, outlining the steps they intend to take to bring the region closer to affordable Internet access. “We just completed a preliminary technology plan, and we’re doing the business plan. We are pricing it, trying to look at the system we’re trying to build,” said Dubendorf.

“This is a complicated task because you’re trying to anticipate where connectivity goes. How will we begin to think about the resolution of the problem, given all the difficulties?” said Dubendorf. “We need to be able to aggregate the demand that exists or will grow…We’re going to have to demonstrate demand as we make incremental investments.”

The Committee is also looking into questions of where and how to lay the cables that will cut the cost of Internet access. “Whenever you think about communications technology, and particularly things over geographic distance, as opposed to waves. You think about right of way,” said Dubendorf. The steering committee is currently speaking with neighboring counties to the east, and with New York State to the West, about gaining the right of way to lay cables.

According to the New York Times article, the business plan is expected to call for funding from a combination of public and private investment. This makes sense given the make-up of the task force, and the diverse range of people who would benefit from improved Internet access. Still, it leaves open several questions that the committee has yet to resolve. Once the investment has been made and the system for providing better service exists, for example, it is unclear how that system will be administered and maintained.

“One of the thorniest issues in public policy today is the interface between public investment and private investment in the pursuit of common goods and private goods. We’re not yet there. It may be as simple as somebody builds road and you own a trucking company. We haven’t sorted that all out yet,” said Dubendorf.

The Berkshire Connect project, if successful, will bring improvement over time in Internet access to the Berkshire Region. In the meantime, as the Times article pointed out, starting a business in the Berkshires is not without its other advantages. Matthew C. Harris, a venture capitalist who tries to attract technology companies to the area is quoted by the Times. “You’re going to pay more [for Internet access] than in Boston, but your rent will be 10 percent what it would be there, and your salaries 20 percent lower because the cost of living is lower,” he said.

The success of Tripod, which was recently sold to Lycos for $58 million, is evidence of these advantages. The price of access is more than compensated for by the low rent for their offices on Water Street: $2.50 per square foot annually.