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Where Internet Is Scarce, Social Distancing Hits Harder In Berkshire County

A sign that reads "Entering Windsor"

Guidance from officials was brief and firm: school and most work has to be done from home during the pandemic. But some of Berkshire County’s smallest communities are feeling the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak through their ongoing struggles with internet access.

In New Ashford, Massachusetts, population 200, just south of Williamstown on Route 7, it’s mostly business as usual.

Select board member Ken McInerey is a 26-year town resident.

“Prior to this COVID-19 event, we already adopted the bylaw that allows you to call into meetings, so we are doing safe distancing meetings where some are calling in, some are not, and now we know that the state’s approved it, we were ahead of our times,” said McInerey. 

He says tending to the town’s seniors is New Ashford’s major concern during the pandemic.

“Working through the council on aging, it’s kind of a poll thing," McInerey explained. "If they need help, we offer help in terms of transportation or anybody needs food shopping. But other than that, the town is kind of keeping to itself.”

Its infrastructure allows for those working from home to do so without fear.

“We have a 100% fiber optic network to every house that wants it," said the select board member. "It’s a municipally owned network that’s available against every household who’s currently served by utilities. Roughly, we have 83 households that have taken advantage of that and they’re getting 1 gigabyte symmetrical internet speed to the house. So, it is very able to work from home in New Ashford.”

But not all small towns in the Berkshires have that kind of access.

“Only about half of the town has DSL, and that is spotty at best and very slow," said Douglas McNally. "Most people have 1 megabit or less of actual usable broadband.”

McNally is on the select board in the town of Windsor, a community of around 900 on a hilltop east of Pittsfield in the center of Berkshire County.

“People who are using their cell phones as a hot spot, or have some other form that has a data cap are finding that with children at home and with parents working at home they exhaust the data cap very quickly," he told WAMC. "So it’s a serious problem. The school districts are trying to do online learning or some format of that, and our children are struggling with it.”

While Windsor is working to establish its own fiber optic network, it was slated to be completed by the end of the year even before the pandemic hit, leaving the town high and dry for the time being.

“Verizon is not going to do anything about their fiber DSL right now, because there’s no point in their investing in that when they know that within a year it’s going to be obsolete because of the fiber,” said McNally.

Windsor’s state representative knows exactly how frustrating it is to be without internet access – now an essential part of governance as social distancing redefines how business is done.

“All the meetings you used to go to in many instances now, they’re looking to do them remotely. And so to do a video meeting for me at home is impossible," said Paul Mark, a Democrat who represents the 2nd Berkshire district. He lives in the town of Peru, south of Windsor with over 800 residents.

“When we’re talking about students that are home in some of my communities, it is very difficult for them to be able engage, at least in the same way as their fellow students," said Mark. "And so me and other legislators in the area, we have been in touch with school districts and with community colleges and such to talk about – you know, you have to move remote, obviously, you have to keep these kids engaged and keep them learning and that kind of thing – but you have to do it in a way that is as fair as possible to students that live in a town like mine that might not have the same ability to access resources.”

The Massachusetts Last Mile Infrastructure Grant program is an ongoing state effort to bring internet access to the remaining Western and North Central Massachusetts communities without residential broadband service.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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