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Fearing competitive disadvantage, Great Barrington explores high-speed Internet connectivity

"I think Great Barrington needs to have a more robust business community than it currently does. Great Barrington needs to become that small town that, besides great food and culture, is also a very interesting place to set up your business and that's the missing piece." -- Tim Newman, WiredWest spokesperson who would move his business to Great Barrington if affordable high-speed communications were available

Great Barrington — As southern Berkshire County’s largest town and its business hub, Great Barrington has long held an advantage over its smaller neighbors in having better infrastructure.

Even in the area of high-speed Internet access – a sore spot for many in the county – Great Barrington has had wide coverage by Time Warner Cable. It’s not great, but at a typical download speed of 60 mbps, it will do for a normal household. But that’s no longer adequate for economic growth since many enterprises now need far higher communication speeds and capacity.

Therefore, it looks as if Great Barrington could be left behind as some of the surrounding hill towns are taking the plunge in attracting private companies to wire their communities with higher speed fiber-optic connections. In other cases, towns are starting their own broadband utilities. In either case, download speeds could top 1 gigabit per second – otherwise known as 1,000 megabits.

“I’m afraid we’re going to get leapfrogged,” said Jonathan Hankin, a Great Barrington real estate broker and longtime member of the town’s planning board. “To some extent, [lack of broadband] has been holding back towns like Egremont and Alford. We could always compete with them because we had cable.”

The 47 Railroad Street development is contracting with a private company to wire the building with fiber, but a solution for affordable high-speed internet connectivity for the rest of downtown has so far proved elusive.
A Charter-Spectrum van of the sort seen in Berkshire County since the company acquired Time Warner Cable. Photo courtesy Charter Communications

But now the entire town of Egremont is going to be wired not only by Charter-Spectrum, which acquired the old Time Warner cable systems last year, but also by Fiber Connect, a Monterey-based broadband company that promises high speeds – up to 1 gbps – and affordable prices. Fiber Connect is also wiring Monterey for service.

Tiny Alford – population 500 – has already taken the step of organizing its own municipally owned and operated broadband system, having recently secured $480,000 from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s Last Mile Infrastructure Grant Program. The situation is much the same in the hilltowns of Otis and Mount Washington, where officials have taken the necessary steps to establish municipal broadband utilities and make high-speed Internet a reality.

Great Barrington Selectboard member Ed Abrahams.
Great Barrington Selectboard member Ed Abrahams.

To address this competitive disadvantage the Great Barrington Selectboard has assigned Selectman Ed Abrahams to partner with multimedia talent Tim Newman of New Marlborough. They are now researching what options there are for Great Barrington to install essential broadband capacity in order to sustain economic vitality. For the moment Abrahams and Newman are focusing on the downtown business area, since that’s where they see the need as being most urgent.

The result was a 10-page document sent to the selectboard earlier this month and chock full of options and examples of other towns that have successfully brought fiber into their communities and at what prices.

In an interview with The Edge, Abrahams emphasized that he speaks for the selectboard on the matter but does not have the authority to commit the town to anything or spend any money.

“The surprise to me was that we already have fiber available from Spectrum, but it’s very, very expensive,” Abrahams said.

Spectrum Enterprise, the business-class broadband unit of Charter-Spectrum, provides fiber-to-home or fiber-to-business broadband anywhere in Great Barrington. The traditional Spectrum service that most Great Barrington customers enjoy uses a hybrid combining fiber and old-fashioned coaxial cable. This transmission media drastically limits speeds and capacity. On the other hand, Spectrum’s  business-class speeds, in which upload and download speeds are the same, can range up to a whopping 10 gbps. But they cost plenty.

Prices for that level of service are jaw-dropping. A 2 gbps connection will run you $4,000 per month with a minimum $250 installation charge – with higher charges for less accessible locations – and a required 3-year contract. For the most part, prices increase proportionately up to 10 gbps. Shorter contracts with higher installation charges or higher monthly fees are also available.

“Unfortunately, that’s at a price point that’s out of reach for most of the kinds of businesses that likely would want to locate here,” Newman said in an interview.

Spools of fiber optic cables were delivered to Monterey earlier this year. Photo courtesy Fiber Connect
Spools of fiber optic cables were delivered to Monterey earlier this year. Photo courtesy Fiber Connect

The next option would be to contract with a private provider. That would necessitate the town issuing a request for proposals. Newman and Abrahams recommended the town reach out to Fiber Connect CEO Adam Chait, who has already indicated an interest in bringing fiber to the downtown area.

The third option would be the creation of a municipally-owned and financed network of the sort envisioned by Otis and Alford. The established model for this approach is widely assumed to be the Franklin County town of Leverett, where taxpayers set up a so-called municipal light plant, which is essentially a municipal utility set forth in state law that would be governed by its own board of directors to provide telecommunications services to the town.

A fourth option is to simply leave it up to individual building owners to upgrade their own properties. As an example, Newman cited Ian Rasch and Sam Nickerson, who 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.

The upfront cost to Framework is less than $10,000 to bring fiber to the building and under $5,000 to wire and equip the 19 commercial and residential tenants. The monthly cost to share 250 mbps line among all 19 tenants will be $1,900.

Mt. Washington Town Hall, where residents voted to have fiber-optic broadband service. Photo: David Scribner
Mt. Washington Town Hall, where residents voted to have fiber-optic broadband service. Photo: David Scribner

Yet another alternative is what Newman and Abrahams call a “hybrid public-private network.” It would include the formation of a downtown business improvement district that 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.

As for which option is the best fit for Great Barrington, Abrahams said much of it boiled down to a simple question: “What would be the cost to the end user and how many people will use it?”

Option 1, having individual property owners contract with Spectrum, already exists but is prohibitively expensive for most businesses and residents.

Newman thinks other options, such as the idea of having the town build and operate its own broadband network as some of the hill towns are doing, will never fly. Bonding for such a project would require a two-thirds majority of taxpayers at town meeting.

“A two-thirds vote is not realistic,” Newman insisted. “You’d be asking two-thirds of the town to vote for a project that would only benefit the business district … It won’t be seen as benefiting the rest of town that already has Internet speeds sufficient to their needs.”

“Two-thirds must agree to bond, but about two-thirds are already adequately served,” added Abrahams.

This is why Otis, Mount Washington and Alford were able to set up MLPs. Virtually no one in those towns was satisfied with Internet speeds, so it was relatively easy to convince taxpayers to approve bonding for the build-out of a municipally owned network.

The town of Otis intends to provide each household with a high-speed Internet connection, utilizing fiber optic cable strung from poles such as these on Route 8.
The town of Otis intends to provide each household with a high-speed Internet connection, utilizing fiber optic cable strung from poles such as these on Route 8.

As for contracting with an outside firm to wire the town, Abrahams and Newman don’t currently recommend this “as a formal process” because … “We believe the likelihood of there being interested providers is slim.”

That leaves the BID, which is the preferred option of Abrahams and Newman, though they acknowledge that it would “be time-consuming.” A feasibility study would have to be performed. In addition, there would have to be “buy-in from key landlords” in order to form a BID.

There has been a movement in the last two or three years to form a BID, which is really a special district that would tax property owners to pay for a variety of services that proponents say would help improve the business climate of downtown.

Some merchants say the most pressing need is to increase business in the off-season, which most define as winter and spring and late fall. Some Main Street merchants are proponents, including Howard Leffenfeld and Chef’s Shop owner Rob Navarino, who led an effort six years ago to form a BID.

Navarino said the initial effort failed because some people didn’t like former town manager Kevin O’Donnell’s approach, while others felt there might be some duplication of services and were concerned that the town was trying to offload some services onto the downtown business community.

According to town planner Chris Rembold, a BID provides a mechanism for property owners to collectively purchase programs and supplemental services that are favorable for this particular district–such as a broadband network needed by downtown businesses.

Businessman Richard Stanley.
Businessman Richard Stanley.

One of the opponents of a BID is Richard Stanley, who is both a business owner and a landlord in the heart of downtown. He owns the Triplex Cinema and the Barrington House, a large Main Street building that contains apartments and retail establishments such as Baba Louie’s, GB Eats and Robin’s Candy.

Stanley remains unconvinced that a BID is necessary to accomplish many of its goals, including bringing fiber to downtown. He said he has been to meetings over the years in which fiber for downtown is discussed but there are never any cost estimates at the ready.

Informed of the plans of Rasch and Nickerson to contract with a private company to wire their new building, Stanley pointed to it as an example of downtown businesses taking care of themselves.

“This is a solution looking for a problem,” Stanley said in an interview. “This is really a simple, manageable issue.”

For the Triplex, Stanley uses Spectrum and says it is adequate for the needs of the movie theater, though, at the Beacon, Stanley’s other cinema in Pittsfield, he does need to download movies, but that is done via satellite.

Abrahams said there is also fiber at Town Hall and at the Mason Library, but the latter is confined to library services in the basement and is not available to the general public. Public wifi is available elsewhere in the building but it is through a standard Spectrum connection.

Asked what kinds of downtown businesses might demand lightning-fast 1 gbps connections, Newman pointed to anyone who needs to send and receive large digital files: Movie producers, architects, certain coders and web developers and even radiologists who send enormous digital images of the human body. Upload speeds offered by most commercial broadband providers such as Spectrum are asymmetric, or a fraction of the download speeds, so that is another reason to bring in fiber, Newman said.

Tim Newman, WiredWest spokesperson and New Marlborough resident.
Tim Newman, WiredWest board member and New Marlborough resident.

And of course, a younger generation of business owners will demand faster connectivity out of habit and custom. They might be dissuaded from locating in Great Barrington if gigabit Internet isn’t available.

Though a resident of New Marlborough who moved the Berkshires in 2003 to purchase the Southfield Store, Newman nonetheless has taken an interest in bringing fiber to downtown Great Barrington, which functions as a commercial hub for southern Berkshire County. In addition, Newman sits on the board of WiredWest, a cooperative of town municipal light plants that offers fiber.

“I think Great Barrington needs to have a more robust business community than it currently does,” Newman said. “It needs to be a place where startups are attracted to set up their businesses. The town already has a good reputation as a small town but it’s not known as a small town where you’d want to start a business.”

Making downtown Great Barrington a more attractive place to start a business that needs fiber could be a way to make the town a more vibrant year-round community. This has been a goal of many downtown merchants, including restaurant owners who struggle to make it through the winter.

“There is quite a broad range of companies that would need that,” Newman said. “What you really want is to be able to tell business people they can get any level of speed they want in the downtown area.”

Asked whether the lack of broadband adversely affects the real estate market, Hankin said lack of fiber isn’t an issue so much as lack of broadband connectivity itself. While he hasn’t seen any studies on the issue, Hankin has seen the selling prices of homes drop if access to high-speed Internet isn’t available.

As for fiber, Hankin says towns such as “Egremont and Alford will be hugely competitive” with Great Barrington as a place to start a small business that needs high speeds, especially when one considers how much lower the tax rates are in those towns compared with Great Barrington’s $15 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Hankin is also convinced that it will be crucial to bring fiber to the Housatonic section of Great Barrington as well. Both Hankin and Newman indicated they see fiber as a “build-it-and-they-will-come” proposition.

“If fiber went in to Housatonic, it might make it much more desirable,” Hankin opined. “Maybe those mills or the Housatonic School could be used for tech start-ups.”

As for making Great Barrington more of a year-round environment, Newman said fiber would help. At his home in New Marlborough, he has a slow DSL connection. It takes him 18 to 20 hours to upload a film.

“But if Great Barrington had fiber, I might move my office there,” Newman said. “Great Barrington needs to become that small town that, besides great food and culture, is also a very interesting place to set up your business and that’s the missing piece.”

Another benefit of bringing affordable fiber to downtown, Newman said, is it is bound to drive down the cost of fiber from Spectrum.

“If you have two competing vendors, then the price will drop,” added Hankin.

Newman and Abrahams said the next step is to get more specifics on cost and to present their findings to the selectboard, which Abrahams hopes to do this coming Monday night (August 28).

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