Staying connected: Steve Nelson has spent most of his decades-long career helping get cutting-edge technologies — like renewable energy, personal computing, and streaming video — off the ground. And now, he's working to help play catch-up, specifically by bringing broadband internet access to rural communities. With degrees from Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he is a founding member of WiredWest, a municipal cooperative working to bring broadband to unserved parts of Western Massachusetts. He is now the WiredWest delegate for his town of Washington. Eagle correspondent Christopher Marcisz caught up with him to ask about the effort, and its recent impasse with officials in Boston.
1. How did you first get involved with the broadband access issue?
For many years, I ran a company which produced video reports about trends in the cable TV business, and covered the introduction of the cable modem in the early 1990s. That made high-speed internet possible, and because I was living near Boston, I got service as soon as it was available.
2. How has lack of broadband access affected your life and work?
When my wife and I moved to the Berkshires in 2003, I found that with my satellite dish I couldn't watch the streaming video on my own website. She was telecommuting for a company in eastern Massachusetts, and because she couldn't get an adequate connection to her company's servers, she lost her job. So in 2010, I went to a meeting about bringing broadband to the Berkshires, and volunteered for a committee. That was at the beginnings of WiredWest. By 2015, I was essentially a full-time volunteer for WiredWest, primarily dealing with legal and governance matters, as well as playing a major role in communications and marketing.
3. Last December, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (a quasi-public state entity created to address the "last mile" problem) backed away from WiredWest. Did they have legitimate concerns about the model, or is this just politics and bureaucracy?
In April 2014, MBI's outside counsel said at a meeting with WiredWest, "If you didn't exist, we'd have to invent you." So what happened by last December? I think that in the eyes of MBI, WiredWest had in a sense become too successful, and they felt threatened by our strength in our towns as a countervailing force to MBI. Yes, they had concerns about our financial and governance models, and we've worked with MBI and our towns to address them. But no matter what we did, we couldn't seem to satisfy MBI, because what they really wanted was for WiredWest to just go away.
4. What are the prospects of the project moving forward at this point?
Many town Select Boards have sent letters and resolutions to Governor Baker urging him to get this project back on track. A report by the prestigious Berkman Center at Harvard commended WiredWest but said the state was blocking the way. So the governor has become personally engaged in the issue, and how could he not? He totally gets the importance of broadband for Western Massachusetts. He hears us, and recently made some changes at the top at MBI, including appointing Peter Larkin as the new chair of the MBI board of directors.
5. Thoughts on Larkin (who represented Pittsfield in the Statehouse from 1991 to 2005) accepting that job?
He comes from Pittsfield, and for years we've bemoaned the lack of anyone from out here in the leadership ranks at MBI. And as a former state representative, he understands the importance of listening to your constituents. Well, our towns are his constituents now, and I'm optimistic that his appointment can reboot the project, which is what Governor Baker wants to see happen.
6. Are there any other models out there to solve the "last mile" problem that are you considering, or is this really the last best opportunity to do it?
WiredWest believes that each town should be able to choose the solution that is best for them, including the choice to work together through the WiredWest co-op. That's a choice we were being denied by MBI. We also believe fiber is the best long-term investment of taxpayer dollars, versus other, unproven stopgap solutions. And we believe that a regional approach is key to a sustainable broadband solution for Western Massachusetts, really the only way many small towns can afford to do this. Can we work with MBI to accomplish this? This week, they released a "Last Mile Program Update," saying that they're "shifting to a more flexible, responsive program framework" and are "prepared to move forward quickly" in working with the towns. Hopefully, this truly is a reboot, a new beginning for bringing broadband to Western Massachusetts.