If you want to get as far away from Boston as possible and still be in Massachusetts, your best bet is to head for Williamstown. Located in the northwest corner of the state, near the Vermont border, Williamstown is the home of Williams College and a small but well-renowned art museum, a village center and rolling countryside for miles around. Williamstown has managed to maintain its charm because of its remote location, far from major highways and suburban sprawl.
But remoteness has its drawbacks, especially in the age of high-speed telecommunication networks. That's what some Williams College graduates found out when they started an Internet business called Tripod several years ago. A T1 line from Verizon cost $2,200 a month, more than four times the rate in larger jurisdictions. That's a pretty steep price for a start-up firm to pay, but those same high costs were also hurting established businesses, such as Berkshire Health Systems, which manages nursing homes and hospitals in the area. And the high costs were keeping some businesses, such as law firms and small hotels, out of the broadband picture altogether.
Businesses in Berkshire County decided to fight back rather than pay. They started an initiative, called Berkshire Connect, which pooled local demand so they could attract other telecommunications carriers to step in and offer more affordable services. Today, the use of high-speed data connections in the county has taken off, thanks to lower costs and better services. It's a remarkable story of how rural communities can enjoy the economic benefits of today's high-tech world without the hassles of today's suburban and urban areas. But success in the Berkshires took years of hard work.
"Rural areas in America will always present a challenge to telecom firms," said Don Dubendorf, a lawyer in Williamstown and a founding member of Berkshire Connect. "We are not low-hanging fruit."
America's rural communities have always struggled when it came to building better roads, schools or hospitals. It's no different with telecommunications. They tend to be the last served by broadband and have to pay some of the highest prices. Those negatives can hurt economically. The small businesses that dominate the rural economy have to pay a disproportionate price for their information infrastructure.
High-tech firms, which often pay good wages, are less likely than low- and medium-tech-oriented firms to locate in rural areas, according to a study by the Small Business Administration. The report, "High-Tech Rural Renaissance?" cited several factors for the lack of high-tech jobs in rural areas, including the lack of infrastructure.
The nation's governors have grown concerned about the challenges facing rural communities as the rest of the nation's economy churns forward. Last June, the National Governors' Association called for more federal-state coordination in keeping America's rural communities productive and competitive, citing the high economic and social costs when a large segment of the labor force is left behind.
Last January, a group of senators led by Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., introduced legislation designed to bring affordable high-speed Internet services to rural and low-income areas around the country. The bill featured a 10-percent tax credit per year for five years to companies that will bring existing broadband telecommunications technologies to both residents and businesses in rural or underserved urban areas.
In November, President George W. Bush signed into law a bill containing low-interest loans designed to spur rural broadband deployment. The bill provides about $80 million in direct loans for building out high-speed Internet access in rural areas.
Whether that proves to be the spark for building out telecommunications infrastructure in rural America remains to be seen. For now, initiatives to bring broadband to America's rural communities have been largely at the behest of state governments. For example, North Carolina has created the Rural Internet Access Authority,