LUCKY MASSACHUSETTS in high-speed Internet access, emblematic of the Commonwealth’s long history as a technological and economic leader in the United States. But it’s exactly that record that makes it so disappointing that there are still Massachusetts residents — 137,000 of them — who don’t have high-speed internet access.
During my time as a member of Braintree Town Council, I saw firsthand the importance of equitable internet access for all. Thanks to the work of leaders like U.S. Senator Ed Markey, the bipartisan infrastructure bill has finally brought a solution to this problem within reach.
Funding from this monumental bill provides billions of dollars to connect remaining homes in the most rural areas of Massachusetts to the high-quality internet service needed in our modern world. But while this funding is available and waiting to be used, there remains a significant barrier to its use. Our existing infrastructure to deliver the Internet consists of utility poles that already physically connect distant homes and businesses to the wider network. The most effective way to bring a community online is to connect broadband equipment to these power poles.
This is where the barrier to universal access lies. Utility poles in communities are rarely owned and accessed by a single entity. Power companies, co-ops, local utilities and others own various poles and create a complex map, through which ISPs must navigate and negotiate to affix their technology. All of this might be achievable if it weren’t for the fact that there isn’t a functional and consistent process governing pole access.
Unfortunately, not all pole owners share a sense of urgency with the underserved residents of their communities, nor is there regular agreement on how costs should be shared and apportioned to access to the poles. Internet service providers are willing to share costs and pay access fees, but disputes arise and can last for months. Meanwhile, those who suffer are the students who have to do their homework in the public library parking lot, or the sick person who has to drive hours to see a specialist because they don’t have access to telehealth, or the farmer who is cut off from having access to the most advanced agricultural technology needed to compete in a global economy.
In Braintree we have dealt with a similar complex utility pole issue over the past few years and solved it by having the municipality purchase utility poles themselves to ensure consistency in handling these issues. However, not every community can rely on an organized solution like this. We need congressional leaders like Markey to continue the incredible work done in the infrastructure bill to find a workable solution to this remaining obstacle and bring these communities the connectivity they deserve and need. need.
Michael Collins is a former Braintree Councillor.