Great Barrington — Downtown Great Barrington seems like a bustling place. By Berkshire County standards, it’s like living or working in the fast lane – that is, unless you want to use the internet.
That’s all about to change, thanks to the efforts of a local filmmaker, a selectman and a locally owned broadband start-up. And the best part is it won’t cost the town a thing.
New Marlborough resident Tim Newman, along with Selectman Ed Abrahams, has enticed Fiber Connect of the Berkshires, a Monterey-based broadband provider, to wire the core of downtown with fiber-optic lines that will bring standard download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. That’s a far cry from Charter-Spectrum, the cable television behemoth whose consumer-grade speeds max out at 100 megabits per second, or about one-tenth of Fiber Connect’s.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Newman said during Monday’s Great Barrington Selectboard meeting.
Though a resident of New Marlborough who moved to 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.
It’s pretty exciting,” added Abrahams. “It’s a second option, and it’s an affordable option.”
The board authorized Abrahams about a year ago 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 Charter-Spectrum typically offers.
“Immediately I found Tim Newman – or Tim found me,” Abrahams said.
In August the pair made a presentation to the selectboard that included a 10-page document listing various options and examples of other towns that have successfully brought fiber into their communities and at what prices.
Eventually they began discussions with Adam Chait, Fiber Connect’s managing director. Fiber Connect has already begun wiring portions of Egremont and Monterey, two very small South County towns that did not previously have any broadband options at all.
Some towns have opted to start their own public utilities. Some, including Leverett, 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. This comes at an expense to taxpayers. In Berkshire County, Mount Washington owns and operates its own broadband utility. Because of its tiny size, the town asked for and received an exemption from having to create an MLP.
That will not be necessary with Fiber Connect. Town officials said in a news release that the company “will pay for the costs of maintaining the network and will work directly with building owners in the coming weeks to obtain easements to run the fiber-optic cable between buildings in those areas.” Not only that, but the installation of the fiber-optic cable will come at no cost to landlords or the town.
“So the private sector is handling it,” said Abrahams, who sounded relieved that the project would come at no expense to taxpayers.
He added that the town’s involvement would be largely confined to facilitating portions of the Fiber Connect wiring scheme, some of which will have go underground.
Newman and Abrahams discovered that, as a result of the $6 million Main Street reconstruction project of 2014-16, there was supposed to be a utility box at the corner of Railroad and Main streets. Workers removed it “at the last minute,” Abrahams explained, but the empty conduit that runs under the street remains and can still be used.
In an interview, Chait praised Newman and Abrahams for their work and called the development “definitely a good first step.” Now Chait needs to obtain easements and permissions from landlords to wire the buildings, the same sort of easements and permissions utilities such as Verizon and National Grid must obtain before they wire a building or a neighborhood.
Asked if he had a timeline for the completion of the project, Chait replied, “Best case, if I got my easements tomorrow, probably a couple of months.”
But he has no idea how long it will take to obtain the easements. Not too long because, he surmised, “My guess is the landlords won’t have much to lose.” Asked whether fiber would add value to landlord’s property, Chait said, “I’m not a real estate person, but I don’t disagree with that.”
One former downtown office dweller said he was delighted at the news. Tech entrepreneur and musician Mark Tuomenoksa, an Egremont resident, spent about $700 per month on cellular data to run his business from home because his town had no broadband, but he also maintained an office in downtown Great Barrington.
“My business employs servers located in different parts of the world,” Tuomenoksa told the Edge. “I manage them through my internet connection. When I had my office in Great Barrington, the internet service was so poor that it made managing the servers inefficient at best and, on many occasions, impossible.”
He finally decided to save the rent and set up his office exclusively at home and apply the savings to his cellular data bill. Notwithstanding the high expense of the cellular data, Tuomenoksa said “it outperforms any of the wired-line internet services I’ve used in Great Barrington.”
“I would love to know more vis-a-vis anticipated time frames, locations, etc.,” Tuomenoksa said. “I might even consider moving my office from my home back into Great Barrington.”
Town manager Jennifer Tabakin said the impacted area will include Castle Street, Railroad Street and both sides of Main Street from Castle Street to Elm Street. Both Abrahams and Chait said Fiber Connect might consider expanding the area at some point.
“We are excited that this service will soon be available here in our downtown as an additional option for residents and business owners,” Tabakin said in the written statement. “We expect that having additional services for downtown businesses and residents will ultimately boost our local economy and improve the quality of life in town.”
Fiber Connect rates will range from $99 per month for standard residential fiber-optic internet and $149 per month for business internet. Each requires a three-year commitment. Residential and business customers would also have the option to purchase custom coverage with download speeds up to 10 gigs per second.