MA: The Push Is On to Bring Broadband to Whole State

Posted on August 14, 2007 - 7:00am.

from: Boston Globe

The Push Is On to Bring Broadband to Whole State

From Boston Globe, August 12, 2007
By Carolyn Y. Johnson

Before Sharon E. Gillett took charge of the state’s newly formed Department of Telecommunications and Cable in May, she wrote reports about broadband access and policy. Now, she is shaping the state’s telecom landscape, starting with the Patrick administration’s $25 million initiative to bring high-speed Internet to 32 unserved communities, which she discussed with Globe reporter Carolyn Y. Johnson.

Q You just took the helm of the new Department of Telecommunications and Cable. What is the plan?

A I have three hot priorities, one of which is broadband. The idea that in the 21st century we still have communities with no broadband is just unacceptable, and we have to fix it.

The second thing is, my agency is part of the Office of Consumer Affairs. We answer the phones when consumers call with problems. It helps us put the “consumer” back in consumer affairs.

The third priority is market monitoring. The great thing about telecommunications and cable is they have become much more competitive industries over the last decade. As our role becomes less and less about price regulation, I think our role is to morph more into market monitoring. We think we have competition, but where is it working? Where isn’t it?

Q The big news is the state’s $25 million broadband incentive fund, which will help bring broadband access to 32 towns that don’t have high-speed Internet. What are the details?

A [The fund] is to be used to invest in hard capital assets with long lives — things like conduits, fiber, wireless towers. Those are big parts of the up-front capital required to serve communities, and the idea is having the state invest in those assets lowers the cost for private companies to come in and do the rest of the job. The state is not a service provider … We’re also technology neutral — whatever works.

Q Do you think there is enough competition in the state?

A The map for broadband starts at red with unserved [towns]; it goes to orange with underserved — red is the 32 [communities] with nothing, but there are also 63 that are orange which means some part of the community has broadband, but not 100 percent. One of the other goals of the broadband fund is to give more detailed analysis of where the gaps exist. We’re expecting out of $25 million we’ll get a better understanding.

Q Some cities and towns are setting up their own wireless projects. In general, what role do you think the public sector has to play?

A It is entirely appropriate for cities to be trying to find ways to use [information technology] efficiently — and in fact they would be remiss if they weren’t doing it. If there are synergies between doing that and benefits to the public, I think that’s terrific. In Brookline they’ve now got free access in the parks — free zones and paid service — I think that’s a great model.

There are communities where lack of access and affordability are real issues. We learned in the Boston process that 80 percent of Boston public schoolchildren had no broadband in their homes. It’s not an access issue; it’s an affordability issue. That’s a huge number — way too big. The intent [with the Boston municipal wireless pilot program] is to see what happens when you try and make this much more accessible, price-wise, to lower income communities.

Q Verizon has been pushing controversial legislation that would ease its entrance into new cable markets. What is the state’s position?

A Verizon opened a proceeding with us, and because that proceeding is still open I can’t comment. The second piece is the Legislature has considered [Verizon’s] proposal, and it has been put up for further study.

Q The upcoming FCC auction of radio spectrum is seen as a way to increase competition. Will you be tracking wireless service in the state, too?

A I don’t regulate wireless services, so there are limits to what I can do. The issue is cellphones are increasingly a competitor to conventional landline telephone service. In broadband, the competitive landscape includes things like wireless broadband services. We have no intention or authority to regulate those things, but we have to understand them.

Q Do you have broadband?

A When we first moved to Lexington in 1998, there was no broadband yet in the town. We looked into satellite broadband and said it’s really expensive up front and not very fast. We chose to wait. I find that particularly touching today — in Becket and other places like it, people say — why can’t those people just use satellite? And I say when it was my only choice, I didn’t take it either. It’s expensive and slow — second class

( categories: MASSACHUSETTS )