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

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.

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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