Egremont — The quest of broadband-starved small towns in western Massachusetts is a complicated web of bureaucracy, money, power and politics.
For residents and business owners, it’s a fairly simple matter. Without high-speed Internet, they’re living in a world of relative isolation — the same one most of us were inhabiting some 15 years ago.
For residents of Egremont, things just got even more complicated. After decades of living in the slow lane of dial-up, DSL and rickety satellite connections, Egremont now has more than one company vying for the right to slake the town’s thirst for the modern age.
After giving up on WiredWest, which had its funding pulled from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), Egremont saw Fiber Connect, a Monterey-based broadband start-up, begin to wire the town on its own last year.
Enter Charter Communications. The telecommunications giant recently acquired the old Time-Warner cable operations that supplied TV and Internet to most of Berkshire County. Charter evidently used its muscle to qualify for a piece of MBI’s $20 million in “last-mile” funding to provide broadband, phone and cable television to six rural towns in the state, while the MBI has merely said that Fiber Connect “has a path” to obtaining funding,” said Charlie Flynn, who chairs the Egremont Board of Selectmen.
That’s the conundrum for residents of Egremont. At a public information meeting on Monday (March 13) about 75 people packed the selectmen’s meeting room to weigh in on the Charter and Fiber Connect proposals. The MBI expects to hear back from the town by March 24.
With funding from MBI, Charter is offering to provide service to 96 percent of Egremont residents at no expense to town taxpayers beyond each resident’s cost for subscription and installation. The cost to supply service to the remaining 4 percent would be paid by the taxpayers of Egremont. The monthly cost to Charter subscribers would depend on which combination of Internet, phone and television services they select.
Fiber Connect has already started wiring the town and is building out in two phases: half the town would be covered in the first phase, which is slated to be completed later this year; eventually, 75 percent of the town would be covered — but not every home and business, which has long been the goal of the Egremont Technology Committee. The cost for a lightning fast one-gigabit-per-second download speed will be $99 per month.
The sentiment among those at Monday’s meeting was overwhelmingly in favor of Fiber Connect, because of its faster speeds (Flynn says Charter is proposing only 60 megabits per second down) and because it is locally owned and therefore presumed to be more responsive to consumer needs. At one point, someone asked those in favor of the Fiber Connect to stand up. Nearly 90 percent of those in the room stood.
Several residents complained about the lack of broadband in Egremont and the effect it has on commerce, on real estate sales and overall quality of life. One woman complained that the only way she can get Internet service is a wireless hotspot using her cell phone — an expensive arrangement that burns through her data allotment quickly.
Another said she would like to run her business out of her Egremont home but, in the absence of broadband, she must rent office space in Great Barrington, where almost all of the town is wired by Charter, which acquired the much-despised Time-Warner Cable last year, but not at the kinds of speeds Charter is talking about for Egremont. Indeed the lack of true broadband in Great Barrington is seen as threatening the economic vitality of South County’s commercial and cultural hub.
“Time-Warner is unreliable but less unreliable than what we have in Egremont,” said the woman with the Great Barrington office. “I’m confused about what our priorities are. Speed or reliability?”
David Sheehan, who has been a full-time Egremont resident for two years, previously lived next door in Hillsdale, N.Y., where Charter holds the cable franchise.
“Charter is not dependable and there are hidden costs,” Sheehan said. “I was surprised to hear late in this process that TV would be a benefit. Broadband clearly is the future. Adopting cable is shortsighted and not looking to the future of Egremont.”
“Cable is a dying technology; it makes no sense,” said Kevin Granger of Baldwin Hill. “It blows my mind that we’re even considering it. It’s outdated and shortsighted.”
“Cable cord-cutting is on the rise thanks to low-cost streaming,” added another woman. “You have YouTube TV, Sling, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.”
Others questioned whether Charter was prepared to use state-of-the-art technology in wiring the town. Some called it “antiquated” because they assumed Charter would be using old-fashioned coaxial cable.
Fiber Connect’s Managing Director Adam Chait said his company will offer a fiber-to-the-home set-up whereby fiber-optic lines will run directly to the modems in individual homes and businesses.
Charter, on the other hand, will use a hybrid fiber-coaxial model whereby fiber runs to nodes that serve individual neighborhoods. From the nodes, coaxial cable will run into the homes.
“Charter meets all the throughput specs,” said Flynn, who spent decades working as an IT specialist. “It’s not antiquated technology at all.”
At a Thursday morning (March 16) meeting of the Board of Selectmen, attended by far fewer people than on Monday, sentiment seemed to swing back to Charter. Several members of the Technology Committee were present and prepared to listen to the selectmen and to each other.
Selectwoman Mary Brazie characterized Fiber Connect as “an unknown,” but conceded the company is going forward no matter what. Meanwhile, Charter’s build-out will take about a year longer than Fiber Connect’s but the cable giant will cover the entire town.
“We need to look out for the best interests of whole town,” Brazie said. “Maybe an unproven company isn’t where we should be going.”
Brazie insisted most of those at Monday’s meeting who spoke out for Fiber Connect had “already signed with them” and “they’re all biased.”
The question on the minds of the selectmen and the Technology Committee was whether Charter would proceed with the project if one or more of the six towns named in the proposal rejected it. In addition to Egremont, Charter’s proposal includes New Salem, Shutesbury, Monterey, Hancock and Princeton.
Monterey has made a preliminary decision to go with a proposal from Frontier Communications. Flynn said he has since learned that New Salem and Shutesbury have also decided against going with Charter and that the company has agreed to wire Princeton separately, regardless of the decisions the other towns make.
In response to an Edge inquiry on whether Charter would proceed with the proposal if some towns reject it, Charter spokesperson Andrew D. Russell said, “We’re not commenting on the selection process at this time.”
Russell did elaborate on the Internet speeds the company would offer Egremont: “Spectrum Internet features the fastest starting Internet speeds of 60 mbps, with no modem fees or data caps. 100 mbps speeds would also be available.”
Selectman Bruce Turner suggested, and the rest of the board agreed, to ask the Technology Committee to meet on March 22 at 4 p.m. to draft a memorandum detailing the pros and cons of both providers and reporting back to the selectmen at their March 27 meeting. Flynn also suggested he might ask MBI for an extension on its March 24 deadline, by which six towns must respond to the Charter proposal.
Editor’s Note: Brian Noyes, spokesman for MBI, has subsequently told The Edge that the MBI process was not “unfairly influenced by Charter” to qualify for MBI funding. The company used the same process available to all applicants. The story has been corrected to reflect his statement.