News July 14, 2017

Berkshire Eagle: Four towns opt for Charter broadband

Four additional Berkshires towns will opt to obtain long-awaited broadband internet service from a private company, courtesy of a $4.4 million state incentive.

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute announced Wednesday that officials in Egremont, Hancock, Peru and Tyringham have agreed to join a program devised last year that subsidizes network construction by cable companies.

Charter Communications will receive $4,420,000 from the institute to provide high-speed connections to the four towns, as well as the community of Princeton in Worcester County. The money comes from a bond authorization approved by the state Legislature.

For Egremont, the Charter deal sets up a rivalry between two ventures, since Fiber Connect is already on the ground there creating a network it expects to debut as early as this summer.

“I’m just very glad. This is another milestone,” said Jeffrey Lazarus of Egremont’s technology committee said of the Charter agreement. “I’m hoping that reasonable internet broadband is in our future.”

The Charter buildout will reach 3,600 premises in the five towns. The deal moves the MBI closer to its goal of closing the digital divide in the 19 Berkshires communities it identified as unserved in early 2016.

More broadly, the MBI says that out of 53 communities listed as unserved in Central and Western Massachusetts, 46 of them have completed a buildout, landed a last-mile grant for an approved project or are considering what the group terms “a viable option to close the broadband gap.”

Charter agreed to the MBI’s requirement that it reach 96 percent of premises in each of the towns. The company says it plans to offer customers the option of purchasing a package of TV, data and phone options through its Spectrum service. The Charter agreement had to be approved by Select Boards in each of the towns.

By opting for broadband through a private company, the towns will not have to devote local taxpayer dollars to a network project.

In a June vote, residents of Peru strongly backed the Charter option over owning their own network, a move embraced by state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru.

Mark has told The Eagle he believes he’s the only lawmaker without a home broadband connection.

“I couldn’t be more excited for my hometown of Peru to be on the verge of full connectivity,” he said in a statement provided by the MBI.

Other towns are in the process of building municipally owned networks, paid for through a combination of state grants and local government borrowing. The MBI has so far allocated nearly $16 million to 18 towns pursuing that option.

Towns in Berkshire County going that route include Alford, Otis and Mount Washington.

Charter is expected to complete construction in the four Berkshires towns within a year of obtaining permits and clearance from the phone and power companies for access to utility poles.

That timetable keeps it behind Fiber Connect in Egremont. That privately owned company, one of three that pitched to provide service in the town, has already obtained pole access from the utilities, according to Lazarus.

“They’re moving along,” he said of Fiber Connect. The town’s Select Board this week granted the company, run by Adam Chait, a key approval.

Lazarus noted Charter will have to play catch-up. “That is a bit of a process,” he said of gaining access to utility poles. “So that’s going to take a while.”

Chait could not be reached for comment.

The Charter deal announced Wednesday mirrors one reached last August, when the MBI provided financial incentives to Charter to supply broadband coverage in three other Berkshires communities it had never sought to serve.

Those towns include Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge. In a May visit, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito toured West Stockbridge to speak with new Charter customers and to celebrate their administration’s broadband push. That earlier Charter project is expected to be completed next year.

In a release, Baker and Polito said this week the latest deal improves the odds for economic success in the towns.