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HomeEditor's PicksPandemic amplifies digital divide and lack of internet access in New Marlborough

Pandemic amplifies digital divide and lack of internet access in New Marlborough

Olivia Fusco, 8, works in a rented office space alongside her parents because she does not have internet at home. (Photo contributed)

SOUTHFIELD — Like many children across the country, Olivia Fusco has been adjusting to the shift of educational instruction moving from a classroom into her home.
But unlike some of her classmates, the 8-year-old’s class time pivoted to the backseat of her parent’s vehicle as there is no internet connection at the Fusco family’s Southfield home.
On a typical week, the Fuscos split their time between their home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the week and weekends at their second home in the Berkshires.
With concerns of the spreading of coronavirus disease though, the family decided to stay in Southfield, according to Vincent Fusco, Olivia’s father.
“We were still going back to the city for the week because of the connection issue, but there’s no way we want to go back to New York City,” said Vincent. “When we bought our house four years ago, the previous owner had DSL, and thought we were going to be able to get the same connection. But that’s not the case. … And it has been a big challenge.”
Vincent said that he and his family planned to spend more time in the Berkshires, but the lack of connection has been a big detriment.
Instead, the Fuscos have been making their single vehicle function as an office and classroom by driving around to local libraries and even parking lots like Stop & Shop in Canaan, Connecticut.
Vincent serves as the chief technology officer for a large advertising company and runs a global network. Even making a cell phone call with clear service requires a drive to a grocery store parking lot, for example, he said.
“It’s a health and safety issue,” said Vincent. “In order for us to survive and keep up with work and school, we have to break quarantine and expose ourselves to the elements outside of the house.”
The family travels with a 50-foot extension cord and charge devices via the car and wherever an outdoor outlet can be found.
On a recent Monday at the end of March, Olivia’s mother, Janine Fusco, taped a schedule to one of the windows, packed a pillow, a TV tray, whiteboard and laptop in the backseat of the car, so that Olivia could keep up with her studies.
“She [Olivia] insists on doing her check-in for school at 7:20, so we have to leave the house for 7 and leave around noon for bathroom and lunch breaks, and then come back in the afternoon to finish up,” said Janine. “We were there all day.”
Janine says her daughter is involved in several after-school programs like ballroom dancing and Irish stepdancing, so she’s also tried to maintain those connections at least through Zoom conferencing. More recently, her teachers led a hula dance party through the software-based conference call.
The inconvenience of the situation has since prompted the family to rent an office space in Winsted, Connecticut, according to Vincent. At this point, the rental situation is week-to-week, but considering how the current circumstance with the virus continues to develop, Vincent is unsure how long he’ll have to rent out the space.
And while Verizon has the ability to temporarily hook residents up with DSL, they refuse to do this, said Janine.
A Verizon representative could not be reached by presstime.
Both Janine and Vincent noted that they are not alone in their plight; they’ve noticed many vehicles parked at local libraries utilizing Wi-Fi.
As of Sunday, New Marlborough announced it had successfully installed and activated enhanced hi-speed internet hotspots at the town’s three middle-mile access points: the library, Town Hall and the fire station. By combining upgraded bandwidth speeds with omni-directional exterior antennas residents can now log onto a high-speed connection from a wider range around these locations, according to Nat Yohalem, chairperson of the New Marlborough Select Board.
“This will give people the opportunity [to connect to the internet] if they don’t have it at home,” said Yohalem. “Getting online in the car … it’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got. No one anticipated this happening — certainly not in my lifetime.”
The Town of New Marlborough has entered into an agreement with Charter Communications and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which is part of the state agency Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), said Yohalem. With the agreement, at the bare minimum 96 percent of the town will have access to internet connections, he noted.
At this point, National Grid has finished its work on the matter and Verizon should be nearing the end of its work, said Yohalem. Once Verizon has completed its work in setting up that infrastructure, Charter Communications will have one year to “light up” the town with access, he said.
In a press release issued by Town Administrator Mari Enoch, the town offered thanks to New Marlborough resident Marc Trachtenberg, who proposed and outlined the project and managed its implementation, as well as the Cable Advisory Commission, who coordinated with both the state and its contractors at the middle mile as well as town government, especially Enoch, and Chuck Loring, DPW supervisor.
“On behalf of the entire town and the Select Board, thank you to Mark Trachtenberg, Steve Klein and Mari Enoch for the incredible job they did empowering the three hot spots in town. You not only did it quickly, but efficiently. It’s up and running,” said Yohalem, at a Tuesday, April 7 board meeting via conference call.
The enhanced service allows more residents to use the connections at the same time and at much higher speeds than was previously possible, supporting all important internet applications including web browsing, streaming, video conferencing and distance learning. The network is named “NMNet” and requires no sign-on password, and is available at any time of day.
The town reminded residents not to block firehouse emergency doors.
Any issues or comments should be sent to nmnetsupport@newmarlboroughma.gov.

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