Baker name-drops Mount Washington student in State of the Commonwealth speech

Posted
A few minutes into his State of the Commonwealth address this week, Gov. Charlie Baker got to the digital divide.

When he reached that topic Tuesday night, Baker went off a script provided before the address — to the delight of Sarah Beckwith.

The governor made the 18-year-old from Mount Washington the face of what it means to finally obtain high-speed internet access.

"I was shocked," Beckwith said after the speech, savoring a newfound celebrity at Mount Everett Regional School, where she is a senior. "It was a very nice surprise. I was happy to be recognized."

According to an advance copy of his speech, Baker planned to say his team had made more progress on closing the digital divide in six months than the state had in five years.

One listener in Hinsdale had another reaction to the speech — and more on that in a minute.

In his actual remarks, Baker used research provided by his staff to sketch Beckwith's struggle to keep up with schoolwork without broadband in a town that's about as far as you can get from Beacon Hill and still be in Massachusetts.

"I first heard about this when a local official told me horror stories about what life was like without it," Baker told his audience in the House chamber. "He mentioned students like Sarah Beckwith from Mount Washington who often did her homework sitting in the car next to the library after hours — so she could get access to their Wi-Fi."

Indeed. Such "horror stories" have been traded freely in Berkshire County — and still are. While most formerly unserved towns now have plans to obtain broadband, most do not have it yet.

Mount Washington is an exception.

Beckwith told The Eagle she grew accustomed to pulling up outside her South County town's combined Town Hall and library to get online.

"I could sit in the car and work on it," she said of homework. "I used to see people who didn't have internet sitting there sending email or watching a movie."

People in towns waiting for high-speed service still gather outside public buildings with Wi-Fi.

The governor turned that into a punchline: "Sarah is a straight-A student," he said, "but c'mon; the parking lot?

"Here's the good news," the governor said, before moving on in his speech. "Mount Washington now has high-speed internet, and Sarah is applying online to colleges using the Wi-Fi in her home."

Mount Washington lit up a fiber-optic network late last year, paid for with state grants and local borrowing.

Beckwith's East Street home — where she lives with her mother, Linda, and brother, Henry — now has lightning-fast internet, a big change from the dial-up service she remembers from her middle school years. It got a little better after that, she said, but nothing like the fiber connection today.

The service debuted in time for Beckwith to use it to take an online class on "Engineering Principles" through Virtual High School. She used broadband to apply online to colleges and hopes to attend either Syracuse University or Villanova University.

Beckwith said she plans to major in civil engineering. She might be one of the only teens in her town interested in speaking about the problem of aging road culverts. Her family goes back generations in town.

"It's nice to know that I can come home and the internet's going to work," she said.

On Wednesday, Beckwith's government teacher at Mount Everett, John Hammill, told the class about the speech.

"They were surprised, and they were happy for me," Beckwith said of her classmates.

Beckwith was invited to attend the governor's speech, but she turned that down because she plays on her school's basketball team and didn't want to miss a game.

The local official who mentioned Beckwith to the governor's office was Brian Tobin, a member of the Select Board.

He said he thought of Beckwith when asked to name someone whose life has been improved by broadband access.

"They loved the story that she benefits from high speed," he said of representatives of the governor.

"I'm just so happy for her," he said. "She's just over the moon about it."

Of course, all residents of the town benefit from the new system, which Tobin said the town pursued aggressively. He said his new upload speeds in Mount Washington are 70 to 80 times faster than what he gets with a Charter Spectrum account at his apartment in Manhattan.

"It was very clear we had to do this ourselves," he said of the new network. "That's the kind of attitude Sarah's ancestors had."

"That young lady is going places," he said. "She's a real star."

Hinsdale hitch

One of those who listened to Baker's speech wasn't as pleased.

Vivian Mason wrote to the governor's office Wednesday to point out that homes in Hinsdale, including her own, have not yet been connected to broadband service through an expansion of existing Charter Spectrum service orchestrated by Baker's administration.

Mason, who is in her 70s and is in charge of updating her town's website, said she is tired of promises that broadband is on the horizon.

"Everything is always 'two more years' away, and I don't know how many more 'two years' I've got," she said. "I want this damn fast stuff before I go."

The Eagle asked Charter for an update on the expansion of service in Hinsdale and other towns included in efforts by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to build out existing cable systems.

Andrew Russell, a company representative, said that update would be provided, but it didn't come in time for this story.

In a Jan. 2 letter to Robert Graves, Hinsdale's town administrator, a Charter official said the company is waiting for "make ready" work to be completed on about 450 utility poles by Verizon and Eversource. That work entails preparing the poles to receive new communications cables.

Anna Lucey of Charter wrote to Graves that, until that work is done, her company could not give completion dates.

"Unfortunately, Charter has no control over how the pole owners schedule their make ready work to prepare the poles for our cable, but we will continue to coordinate with them to push the completion of this project," Lucey wrote to Graves.

Bethann S. Steiner, chief of staff for state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said Wednesday the company is estimating that the buildout in Hinsdale will be completed by the end of this spring. She referred further comment to Charter.

Mason remains frustrated by the pace of work.

She said she bought a cellphone to use as a "hot spot" so she could get online from her home, which lies outside the area already served by Charter. "We're all just dancing up and down here," she said of unserved parts of town. "You know somebody could make the phone call. What's the problem? Let's solve it."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


TALK TO US

If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.



Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions