OTIS -- As routine as saying hello to his teacher, fifth-grader Nathan Reynolds of Farmington River Regional Elementary on Thursday afternoon practiced his Spanish with a group of children a continent away in Colombia via an online video conversation.
The Spanish lesson done via a projector screen had a lot of fanfare with Gov. Deval Patrick, legislators, and local officials in attendance because the conversation was only possible because of a new fiber-optic line that runs from Springfield to Sandisfield.
The broadband is the first in a series of fiber-optic lines that was "lighted" in the past week and links towns in Western and Central Massachusetts to a faster Internet connection.
"We knew broadband was essential to stay competitive and grow opportunity," Patrick said.
"We as a commonwealth choose growth," he said to a large round of applause.
This program, the MassBroadband123, was first conceived when Patrick came into office. The program is bringing broadband within reach of 333,500 homes and 44,000 businesses covering about one-third of the state and more than 1 million residents who don't have speedy Internet connections.
There are homes in many towns that are still not connected. Patrick said a $40 million request has been made to the Legislature to create the infrastructure that will bring the fiber optic network from local hubs like libraries and town halls to homes in the final phase, which could take three years.
Still, town halls, hospitals, public safety offices, and schools across Southern Berkshire County will reap benefits before residents do. He said the project was a group effort that relied on the hard work of local electricty providers, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, State Sen. Benjamin Downing and State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, many of whom were in attendane, along with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
"High-speed broadband is as necessary in this 21st century global economy infrastructure as roads and bridges," Patrick said.
Legislators said the broadband access was important to keep up in a globalized economy and also praised the federal stimulus package, which provided $45.4 million in funding.
"Don't you think that the children in Western Massachusetts behind us -- in the name of national defense and having an educated population -- should have the same opportunity as those [on the state's east end]?" U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said.
Laurie Flower, the technology director at Farmington River Regional Elementary, said the school's DSL line would previously only allow two megabytes per minute. A YouTube video shown in a classroom could disrupt the Internet use in another part of the school, Flower said.
Now the school is able to receive a gigabyte per minute, which allowed for Skype conversations to take place as if everyone was in the same room.
"We're hoping everyone is able to bring their devices," said Flower, about the use of iPads and other devices that can be used in class. "It's a huge opportunity for outreach."
Student Nathan Reynolds' Spanish teacher has already indicated that Thursday's lesson won't be the last time the classes meet via Skype.
Nathan said he's looking forward to the next conversation with his new friends in Colombia.
"It was really fun because one kid [in Colombia] was really good at English, and we had had no clue what they were saying," he said.
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