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Officials Celebrate Launch of Massachusetts Broadband Network with Berkshire Students

Massachusetts Broadband Institute

In a crowded gymnasium at the Farmington River School in Otis, Massachusetts, a class of fifth graders seated in front of a large projection screen was able to video chat with students across the world at the Vive Digital broadband center in Bogota, Colombia…

Students also communicated with staff at NASA’s Godard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Skype demonstration was held at a ceremony to announce the completion of the first segment of the new 1,200-mile MassBroadband 123 fiber optic network. The creation of the so-called Middle-Mile of the project was overseen by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, created in 2009. $26 million in state funding was used to leverage $45 million in federal stimulus funds to build the fiber optic backbone.

The middle-mile will connect 120 unserved or underserved cities and towns in Western and Central Massachusetts. Service will be provided to anchor institutions, including libraries, fire and police stations, hospitals, and schools, like the Farmington River School.

Elementary Principal of the Farmington River School Mary Turo said that the school will use its enhanced internet connectivity to expand learning opportunities, including spending more time with the classroom in Colombia.

"It's so nice to bring the world to us," said Turo.

Massachusetts Democratic U.S. Congressman Richard Neal attended the ceremony celebrating the lighting of the first section of the network. He used the video conference with the Colombian students as an example of how expanding technology in the classroom is important for the increasingly globalized economy.

"We have now entered into trade agreements with Colombia and Peru, and the next big one that's coming is Europe. And preparing our students for that eventuality is part of what we're doing here," said Neal.

The middle-mile of the project will not connect individual homes and businesses, but internet service providers will be able to use the new fiber optic infrastructure to bring a connection their customers in the so called last-mile.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said that the state and federal investments made in the MassBroadband 123 network will allow private companies to connect homes in rural areas in a way that was not possible before.

"The issue in terms of commercial participation...has been the cost of that last-mile," said Patrick. "As we do our part in the last part it makes it more economical for private companies to come in."

The Governor has filed a bill asking the state legislature for $40 million to assist in completing the last-mile of the project.

Executive Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Judy Dumont, said that once the MBI receives the money, it will be able to develop a completion timeline for the last-mile…

"But the size of the build is about the same size as what we just finished. That took about three years, so that's probably the timeline for when the money becomes available," said Dumont.

The first section of the network that was lit-up runs from Springfield to Sandisfield.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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