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Heather Bellow
Railroad Street, the current retail core of downtown Great Barrington, is undergoing an evolution, as are other parts of the downtown. State and local officials, as well as developers and business owners say broadband is key to keep the local economy thriving, and to expand the tax base.

Great Barrington economy at risk for lack of fiber optic broadband network

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By Sunday, Mar 5, 2017 News 12

Great Barrington — While many of the little towns surrounding this south Berkshire County hub push forward with fiber optic high-speed Internet efforts, this town’s inferior Internet speeds may stay that way – unless there is a concerted effort and some expert help.

Great Barrington is one the larger Berkshire County towns that is served by cable, but still doesn’t have a town-wide fiber optic network for top-of-the-line broadband delivery, speeds that local and state officials say could leave it in the economic slow lane.

In a December 2016 letter to Gov. Baker, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Nat Karns wrote that the entire state requires a ‘future-proof’ broadband investment for which fiber optics is the only solution. Photo: Heather Bellow

In a December 2016 letter to Gov. Baker, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Nat Karns wrote that the entire state requires a ‘future-proof’ broadband investment for which fiber optics is the only solution. Photo: Heather Bellow

Nathanial Karns, outgoing executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) expressed just this concern in a December 2016 letter to Governor Charlie Baker. The main thrust was that Western Massachusetts, as well as the entire state, needed a topnotch fiber optic network. Without it, Karns warned of a statewide telecommunications system worse than some third world countries.

Karns further wrote that while the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) is helping small towns head towards broadband as part of its “last mile” efforts, some of the larger cable towns could be left in the dust in what is already a limping rural economy.

So Karns and BRPC found a way to help these “core communities” with a technical assistant grant from the state that will pay for BRPC staff time to begin discussions about a way to get a fiber optic network into these critical economic centers.

Williamstown was the first to engage BRPC, and a committee was formed with representatives from Pittsfield, Great Barrington and North Adams.

“We’re just getting started,” Karns said. “It builds out of something we’ve been talking about for a while.”

He said this grant is the only funding that the state gives BRPC for specific projects.

“We’ll use a modest amount of the money to just kick off a discussion and see where it might go,” he added. “We don’t have any fixed end. But what cable provides isn’t enough.”

This is where it gets confusing. Great Barrington, for instance, is served by Spectrum, formerly Charter Cable and Time Warner Cable. This level of Internet service is fine for many basic uses, but speeds can be slow and the network can cut out without warning. Higher speeds can be purchased, but even those don’t always cut it.

The highest speeds provided by cable do not provide what a fiber optic network can.

And increasingly, businesses require speeds and capacity possible only with fiber.

“Someone working in a collaborative fashion in the digital realm — in graphics or music — thousands of miles away, they can’t do without it,” Karns said.

Indeed, there is one Berkshires tale after another of people doing all kinds of contortions to get their work done. It usually involves traveling to one of the local libraries that offers high-speed service, or getting the work done on a business trip to the city.

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, left, met with Iredale Mineral Cosmetics founder and president Jane Iredale and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, at Iredale’s world headquarters in Great Barrington. The MBI is under the aegis of Ash. Iredale has to pay high rates for her company’s broadband. And Pignatelli has expressed concern that the county’s “core communities” would be left in the dust as surrounding small towns got fiber optic networks up and running. Photo: Heather Bellow

Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, left, met with Iredale Mineral Cosmetics founder and president Jane Iredale and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, at Iredale’s world headquarters in Great Barrington. The MBI is under the aegis of Ash. Iredale has to pay high rates for her company’s broadband. And Pignatelli has expressed concern that the county’s “core communities” would be left in the dust as surrounding small towns got fiber optic networks up and running. Photo: Heather Bellow

In Great Barrington, one has to pay for broadband. Iredale Mineral Cosmetics Inc. and Mahida Family Hospitality hotels, for instance, have had to install special lines – at great expense — for their Internet connections for which they continue to pay an exorbitant fees.

In Housatonic, one recording studio owner said he looses potential business for lack of Internet speed.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said a so far small broadband task force has formed in Great Barrington; it includes 47 Railroad developer Ian Rasch, and software architect and developer Asa Hardcastle. Neither Rasch nor Hardcastle could be reached for this article.

Tabakin said the push for a solution at least in the downtown area was critical for economic development.

“Do we want new businesses to set up outside of town or in the downtown center?” she said, noting how important it is for the town economy, the tax base, that businesses set up shop or expand right here.

While core communities like Great Barrington are not recipients of the MBI’s $40 million budget to get the state’s rural towns wired, the MBI strung a backbone fiber network across the state several years ago, putting connection points into municipal buildings in every town. This is known as MBI’s “middle mile” initiative. While some town buildings plug into these and have high-speed service, some don’t, as the cost is prohibitive for some towns, including Great Barrington.

This middle mile backbone is maintained by Canadian-based Axia, a fiber-optic Internet service provider that offers “blazingly fast Internet.”

Tabakin said middle mile fiber connection hubs were installed at the police department, the fire department, the Mason Library, the Dewey Court house, Community Health Programs (CHP), Fairview Hospital, and Monument Mountain Regional High School. Some of these are points of interconnection.

Not all use broadband from these connections, however, since there is a higher cost involved. The town clerk’s office at Great Barrington Town Hall uses broadband for one computer that sends information to the state, according to Tabakin. And Town Hall’s equipment is a point of interconnection.

“The rest of the Town Hall, the police department and the Mason Library need much higher Internet bandwidth, so the pricing with MBI is prohibitive,” Tabakin said, noting that the library gets a discount.  

Tabakin said one major challenge to getting fiber at least into the downtown is sorting out all the varying needs of each business and institution.

“The task force is trying to brainstorm to try to quantify our demand so vendors could respond,” Tabakin said.

Fiber Connect, LLC’s Adam Chait is one of those possible vendors.

Chait said the strategy for getting a fiber optic system running in downtown Great Barrington is complicated because it requires cooperation from the town and landlords regarding easements for fiber wires.

Chait, who is working with the towns of Monterey and Egremont on their broadband push, says it’s been “hard to organize” all the downtown building owners.

In July 2016 MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) sent a representative to Town Hall to discuss a downtown fiber strategy. A handful of local business owners attended, and Tabakin said while the meeting was “informative,” it revealed the need for more “research.”

Karns says maximum efforts are needed to wire the state with fiber optics, deliver the highest speeds available. This, he says, will keep the state competitive and prospering into the future.

Lack of high-speed internet is considered so critical nationwide that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under new chairman Ajit Pai, voted in January to approve $170 million to “ease the digital divide” in New York state.

“For about almost everybody, fiber is the only technology that is available or on the reasonable horizon,” Karns said. “We need FCC (Federal Communications Commission) compliant broadband standards, and many would argue that FCC standards are not high enough.”

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12 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Bill Talbot says:

    The towns internet connection is so awful that we have been considering moving a section of our business out of town. Can’t do international business with the primitive connections we have in Great Barrington. We at Asiabarong often have better connections in the developing world then we do at home

    1. james m says:

      A sad commentary when some of the counties smallest and least populated towns with little or no commerce will have faster speeds than do the two cities and the route 7 corridor. All the while occurring in the fourteenth most populated state in the country with close proximity to New York, Boston, Albany, Hartford, and Providence. Capitol cities all except of course New York which is arguably the capitol of the world. America, falling apart and falling behind.

  2. Kayemtee says:

    Sorry, but here in Monterey, FiberConnect is not a solution. $99 a month for service plus $999, that’s right, a thousand bucks to hook it up, and a two or three year commitment. Count me out. I’m retiring and was planning on moving full time to the Berkshires, but with no internet, I’m looking elsewhere.

  3. gene says:

    i do business with small companies in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
    They’re internet abilities make ours look like 2 cans and a string.
    Embarrassing , frustrating, unproductive and this caps values of our homes.
    Gene R

  4. Jennifer Clark says:

    It would be helpful to know how the efforts described in this article intersect with the long time work of Wired West. https://wiredwest.net/

    1. Ben Greenfield says:

      It seems that WiredWest would be a logical choice as provider of regional service. They currently are only working on underserved towns. The overserved towns Great Barrington, Pittsfield, North Adams, and Williamstown are working the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to formulate an approach to a plan.

      In my mind the questions that are holding up progress in the overserved towns are:
      nobody knows the adoption rate of fiber-optic connection
      It’s is hard to express the difference between some future better network and the status quo
      Few in a authority have any idea that there is a problem, the problem’s subtleties, and want fewer responsibilities.
      There are Right of Way issues /property right issues to be solved, different solutions can have a multiplying effect
      What is the timeframe of the solution it could have a lifespan of 100 years or 10 years

      The whole effort is needed because we are currently beholden to a single provider. Ideally the future has many providers one of which should be WiredWest.

      If you live in an overserved community tell your elected officials what you would be willing to pay a month for a fiber optic internet connection. That might help them focus:)

  5. Steve Farina says:

    Having been in an undeserved town for years (the phone company wouldn’t even bring DSL to that neighborhood – which still only has twisted pair phone lines, and there were not, and still are not, any cable companies who will bring cable there), I took advantage of the VZW unlimited data plan back when service was 3G. Now with 4GLTE my transfer speeds as of this comment are 16Mb download and 5.7Mb upload. This is more than sufficient for my personal needs.
    When using my computer I tether my phone to it using an app called EasyTether via a USB cable (though there are Bluetooth options available also).
    I do not have cable, nor a landline and now reside in GB utilizing the same methods. I stream everything video (Hulu, Netflix, even the Superbowl) and display it on my large screen monitor connected to my desktop (though any computing platform would work).
    I have one bill, my cell phone. Now that VZW is offering unlimited data again this may be a viable option for many.
    When 5G hits the network speeds will increase tremendously, maybe nearing fiber.
    If businesses need higher speeds, they can always get dedicated phone lines (T1, T3, etc).

    Btw, I laugh at cell commercials stating 5Gb of data is enough, I use about 65 to 70Gb of data in an average month.

  6. Steve Farina says:

    Another option for towns may be to take these fiber hubs and set up a wide area WiFi that utilizes the high speed backbone to allow everyone within the signal radius to have access.
    In each of the locations from CHP to Fairview, that would cover a lot of people.

    1. Ben Greenfield says:

      Wi-Fi might work for the home user but as a business in an overserved town I would still have to buy the outrageous prices for the restricted upload speeds.

      If 1,200 of the 2,000 or so people in Williamstown are paying $50 a month for internet that is $60,000 a month . That much buying power should be able to solve broadband issues even using fiber to the home..

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Williamstown residents have fiber connected Internet service to their house for $50/month? Huh, who knew…
        I’m not against fiber, but it seems like a decade ago that wired west promused to get high speed Internet to my residence in a not-so-remote area of Becket.
        In any case, what’s your personal issue, Bob?
        Is it business’s connectivity or residential?
        I can’t quite tell from the comment…as a business you may have to absorb a higher cost for higher speed connectivity (which, btw, is a tax deductible business expense). I have offered alternative solutions for both business and personal. My own personal connectivity needs have been met for years (and likely will continue for years to come) regardless of where I live… wait around for someone else to solve yours if you want….

  7. Ben says:

    Sorry Steve,

    I was unclear. I’m not saying anyone has access to fiber in Williamstown at $50 a month. I’m saying if the current Williamstown household pays $50 a month. That money could probabably buy a fiber infrastructure instead of paying our local cable provider.

    I have business needs and my partner is a remote worker. The current bussiness cable service upload speeds taps out around 5mbs. That is what hurts my household. I have to pay healthcare like prices for service that in other parts of the region aren’t cost competitive.
    At least we are just being price gouged in the overserved towns. I feel for those with no access.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Yes, I too could never understand how there could be no cost justification for any company to run fiber to even the remote areas, especially when Governor Patrick signed a bill to allocate $40 million towards it across the state, then President Obama signed something for another $100 million nationwide shortly there-after (which MA could get a piece of). There really seems to be no good financial reason why this hasn’t been accomplished yet…imhbao

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