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Opinion
Our Opinion

Our Opinion: As critical 'Last Mile' connections continue, Western Mass. broadband progress is worth celebrating

As broadband access advocates eye the last of the “Last Mile,” it’s worth noting the progress of this years-long initiative. Gov. Charlie Baker’s visit to Western Massachusetts to celebrate that progress with municipal leaders shows what’s possible when our oft-overlooked communities articulate what they need to thrive — and the state truly listens.

When it comes to 21st-century needs, few loom larger than the ability to stay connected in an increasingly digital world. Some might take such a benefit for granted, but many more rural corners of the commonwealth have had to struggle mightily just to provide a means of scalable, accessible high-speed internet for residents.

Eagle Eye Team Report: Broadband expansion languishes in Berkshires

Many across the Berkshires have known those struggles, and The Eagle reported on them for years. Yet while that frustration was persistent, so were the efforts to do something about it, from local and state leaders alike. As a result, the state’s Last Mile program has helped bring broadband connection to nearly four-dozen towns previously on the dark side of the digital divide — including 15 in our Berkshire backyard.

Those representing Berkshire communities at last week’s celebration in Ashfield know that this wasn’t an easy fight on behalf of their now better-connected constituents, but it was worth it — and it’s worth highlighting why it was successful. Local officials in small towns across Western Massachusetts saw the need in their communities and did the legwork to find and advocate for solutions. Then, leaders on Beacon Hill did something we wish we’d see more often — they listened, took seriously a problem disproportionately affecting their more rural constituents, and gave it the resources and attention it deserved.

During the event, Gov. Baker highlighted Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s role as the administration’s point person on the issue of expanding accessible broadband. So did Berkshire figures like Doug McNally, the retired educator who led development of Windsor’s town-owned fiber network, who recalled Polito’s visit to his town when he filled her in on how severely the lack of broadband hobbled his community.

“A lot of us were at it for a lot of years,” Mr. McNally said. “It would not have happened without this administration. Politics aside.”

From Windsor to Washington to Becket, the persistence of Berkshire local leaders on this issue deserves considerable credit. So, too, does the insistence of state officials to help them do something about it through investing wisely in 21st-century infrastructure and meeting these communities where they’re at. We need both when it comes to systemic problems that fall disproportionately hard on our commonwealth’s smaller communities. We often use this page to highlight the ways in which some of those communities in our neck of the woods don’t feel their issues and struggles are seen.

The successes of the Last Mile program are refreshing counterexamples that have greatly upgraded the quality of life for countless Bay Staters and made Massachusetts more competitive and primed for growth in a regionally equitable way.

It wasn’t simple, and it didn’t happen overnight — the folks at last week’s celebration know that better than anyone. And there’s still work to be done. Of the 53 towns that were initially deemed to be on the dark side of the digital divide, seven still have not yet secured full access to high-speed internet service, more than half of which are Berkshire towns. Still, that the initial 53 number is down to single digits is a marker of massive progress.

That progress was only possible because of the sweat equity of tireless local broadband advocates as well as the attention of Baker administration and Massachusetts Broadband Initiative leaders who showed up and listened to their Western Mass. constituents so they could solve a sticky problem together. We’d love to see more of that, and not just on the broadband access front.

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