State extends wireless hotspot program through June, option added for indoor hotspots

  • The Hawley Highway Garage on Route 8A is a Wi-Fi hotspot for residents. The Baker-Polito Administration has extended the hotspot program through the end of June, benefiting Hawley and eight other towns in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/28/2020 3:03:44 PM
Modified: 12/28/2020 3:03:40 PM

The Baker-Polito Administration has extended the free wireless hotspot program launched in unserved Massachusetts towns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, benefiting nine Franklin County and North Quabbin communities.

The existing outdoor hotspots will be extended to June 30, 2021, and the state has offered 24 communities the option to add an indoor hotspot for free to provide connectivity in the winter. This expanded effort was made possible by the broadband funding announced in the statewide Economic Recovery Plan, launched Oct. 22.

The hotspot program, initially announced in April by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at the MassTech Collaborative (MBI) and KCST USA, the operator of the state-owned MassBroadband 123 fiber-optic network, launched public hotspots in 26 communities lacking high-speed internet connectivity, connected with the support of regional internet service providers including AccessPlus, Crocker Communications and Westfield Gas+Electric.

The Franklin County and North Quabbin towns to benefit from the hotspot program are Charlemont, Colrain, Hawley, Heath, Leyden, Monroe, New Salem, Warwick and Royalston.

Colrain Town Administrator Kevin Fox said MBI gave his town a hotspot in the parking lot at Griswold Memorial Library at 12 Main Road when the public health crisis started.

“We’re just going to have it longer than we initially thought we were going to have it for,” he said.

Fox said having to stay in one’s vehicle is a moderate inconvenience, but it is greatly outweighed by the need for the service.

“Something is better than nothing for a lot of people,” he said, adding that the hotspot is useful for people working from home and for students. “I don’t have any numbers, but I do understand it is heavily used. The parking lot is full quite often.”

Warwick Town Coordinator David Young said his town accepted MBI’s offer to install a 250-megabyte hotspot at the former Warwick Community School at 41 Winchester Road. There was already a 100-megabyte hotspot, through town-owned Warwick Broadband, at Town Hall at 12 Athol Road. He said the decision was made to have a second spot instead of increasing the network strength.

“(The newer hotspot) is basically around the corner from Route 78,” Young said. “As soon as you can see the school, you’re under the coverage of that hotspot.”

He also said the hotspots have been “a great relief valve.”

According to an MBI press release, progress continues on efforts to extend high-speed connectivity in the remaining unserved communities, projects that have been supported by more than $55 million in direct grants from the state’s Last Mile Program.

Seven unserved municipalities with outdoor hotspots — including Wendell, Ashfield and Petersham, locally — have Last Mile projects on track to be complete by the end of 2020 and, therefore, were not added to the current expansion. According to MBI, outdoor hotspots will remain active until the end of December and any of those communities incomplete at that time will be automatically enrolled in the new extensions.

Wendell Broadband Committee member Ray DiDonato said installation of his town’s network is wrapping up and should be done in a few weeks, but the free hotspot was vital to Wendell’s connectivity.

“It was absolutely critical. We were hooked up in early to mid-spring with the … wireless hotspot at the Town Offices (at 9 Morse Village Road),” he said. “Our network was just beginning to be built, so people around here didn’t really have a high-speed option. In general, people of course couldn’t wait to get their in-house installations.”

DiDonato said he hasn’t gotten much direct feedback from residents, but said the hotspot “was an important bridge for people to have.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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