Great Barrington — Bringing high-speed fiber-optic Internet service to Great Barrington will be a challenge. But members of the selectboard are eager to make it a reality, even if they realize it won’t happen overnight.
“I think it’s clear that we need to get fiber here and we need to get it as soon as possible,” Selectman Steve Bannon observed at the board’s Monday meeting (August 28).
As reported last week in The Edge, the board has authorized Selectman Ed Abrahams and filmmaker and Wired West board member Tim Newman to perform research on what options Great Barrington might have to bring better broadband to town – better and far more affordable, that is, than what cable company Charter-Spectrum typically offers.
They produced a 10-page document earlier this month that listed options and examples of other towns that have successfully brought fiber into their communities and at what prices. One aspect of their research surprised a lot of people.
“The good news is fiber is already here,” Abrahams said. “The bad news is it’s amazingly expensive.”
Prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest among us. Spectrum Enterprise, the business-class broadband unit of Charter-Spectrum, provides fiber-to-home or fiber-to-business broadband anywhere in Great Barrington. But a 2-gigabit-per-second connection costs $4,000 per month with a required three-year contract and does not include installation charges.
“Anyone moving here would find that price tough to meet,” added Newman.
But Spectrum’s standard fiber-coaxial hybrid services are widely available in Great Barrington and much of Berkshire County. Yet with download speeds typically maxing out at 60 megabits per second, it’s barely satisfactory for consumers and some business owners but not up to the task for others who make heavy use of the Internet to transfer large files, an increasing necessity as businesses rely more and more on digital communication.
Abrahams and Newman reported their findings to the selectmen at their Monday night meeting. Newman pointed to the fact that many small towns in Berkshire County not currently served by Spectrum are contracting with independent fiber providers or starting their own municipally-run internet utilities.
“I think most of the little towns will have fiber service in next two to three years,” said Newman, a resident of the Southfield section of New Marlborough, whose best option for Internet service is currently the rickety, limited-capacity DSL offered by Verizon. “Great Barrington will have an economic disadvantage.”
Newman said one of the most commonly asked questions coming from Barringtonians is: Why not wire the entire town for fiber? He has a variety of answers to that question, including the fact that, as a community that is considered by the state to be already “served” by broadband (even if slower than fiber), Great Barrington is ineligible for state funds such as those from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program that have benefitted Monterey, Alford, Mount Washington, Egremont, West Stockbridge, Tyringham, Hancock and Peru.
“The reason is economics,” Newman explained. “A service on top of cable is almost destined to fail. Experience tells us most people won’t change.”
Others ask why the town doesn’t simply borrow the money to build its own municipally-run network. Again, there would be no seed money from the state of the sort obtained by Alford, Otis and Leverett, all of which did not have cable and were deemed by the state to be unserved. All have built or are constructing their own networks.
The other problem with a town-run network is that bonding for such a project would require a two-thirds majority of taxpayers at town meeting. It is doubtful whether taxpayers would vote to borrow money to pay for a network that would primarily benefit business owners and residents in a downtown district.
Another option is for individual building owners to contract with private companies to bring fiber into their buildings. Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson are the developers of 47 Railroad Street, which will be a mixed-use project that includes retail and market-rate apartment rentals. The two men’s company, Framework Properties, is contracting with a local provider, Crocker Communications, to bring fiber to their building to serve its tenants.
One problem Abrahams and Newman are running up against in aiming for something better is that downtown building owners are reluctant to invest in fiber installation. Most perceive that Spectrum is adequate for their tenants’ needs, so landlords don’t see an urgency.
“The buildings are full,” Newman said. “So how do you convince landlords that it’s in their long-term interest to do this when they are pretty happy with the way things are going now?”
But several people voiced dissatisfaction with Spectrum’s level of service and noticed that it had not improved since the company acquired the dreaded Time Warner Cable system last year.
One downtown businessman, Simeon Joffe, a managing member of Blue Monk LLC, said Spectrum is simply not up to the task. Last week, Joffe was trying to hold a video conference in his Main Street office with a client in Iowa and the Spectrum feed failed repeatedly. Troubleshooting revealed that the connection in Iowa was fine and that the technical problem was with the provider in Great Barrington.
“We had to go with one of our cell phones and set up a hotspot,” Joffe said. “It’s a little embarrassing for a company like ours.”
In touting the need for fiber downtown, Joffe added that “lots of necessities once looked like luxuries.”
Bannon, who lives off of Stockbridge Road, said he has experienced much the same thing, mostly at certain hours: “From 1 to 3 in the afternoon, you lose. It’s frustrating not to be able to do business when you want to. You call Spectrum and they say, ‘Yeah, its down. It’ll be back.'”
Bannon suggested doing “some politicking with our Legislature in Boston” and that perhaps “we could make a case that we really need some fiber and we could ask the state.”
Another more controversial option is to form a downtown business improvement district which would own and manage a network operated by a private provider. As provided by state law, the BID would have the taxing authority to finance the project. But the idea of a BID has been floated before and downtown merchants say it does not enjoy wide support.
Yet another alternative is one that Newman raised. There are, he said, “high net-worth individuals who live here or are very fond of this area and it’s possible for me to imagine that you could create a private nonprofit corporation that invests in this thing for the benefit of the town. You’d have to consider what legal form it would take and there would be a lot of work to do down the road.”
Selectman Dan Bailly asked why the Housatonic section of town wasn’t part of the equation, to which Newman replied, “I think Housatonic is primed for development for business, too.”
“If you want to start developing the mills, you’ve got to have it,” added Bannon.
Town manager Jennifer Tabakin noted that there was a fiber line brought into Town Hall as part of a state initiative to provide high-speed Internet to public buildings such as town halls and libraries. The Great Barrington line remains unused, however.
“The state paid all of this money to bring it here,” Abrahams said in a follow-up interview. “The problem is it’s so expensive to use it.”
“We could get it now,” Bannon quipped. “It’s in our basement.”
Abrahams told The Edge the next step is for him and Newman to conduct further research and better determine the potential costs of “reaching everyone in the downtown business district with fiber” and also to nail down precisely how many people and businesses would be served.
He and Newman will also talk to officials in Greenfield and Westfield, where officials have moved to create municipal light plants, which are essentially municipal utilities set forth in state law governed by their own boards of directors to provide telecommunications services to their towns.
As an aside, Abrahams said ironically it’s almost as if Spectrum’s own super-expensive fiber is the best-kept secret in town. As an experiment, Town Hall intern and college student Joe Grochmal called Spectrum over the summer and said he was a business owner and wanted to know about fiber.
“They said, ‘No, you don’t need fiber’,” Abrahams recalled.