Broadband in the Berkshires

Charter expands broadband offer to Becket, Peru and Tyringham

MBI OKs money for towns in broadband buildout

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WESTBOROUGH — Three more Berkshire County towns will be wooed by Charter Communications, doing business locally as Spectrum, as the cable giant shifts its focus west amid talks to close the broadband gap.

This week, Charter added Becket, Peru, and Tyringham as communities it is willing to serve during negotiations with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the state agency working to bring high-speed internet connections to 41 towns.

That offer must still be accepted by the communities themselves.

Backed by a $40 million bond authorization, the institute is offering financial incentives to private companies to provide broadband to long-neglected rural communities.

Towns that accept proposals from either Charter or Comcast would get broadband service without having to invest any local taxpayer money. By contrast, towns seeking to build their own networks will cover about two-thirds of the cost.

"These free opportunities should be recognized," said Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board.

He urged Select Boards in towns pursued by cable providers to meet with company representatives and to consider their proposals, putting the choice before voters down to "the last hermit."

"Hopefully, the select board would vote — and they should have a conversation with the whole town," Larkin said in an interview after Tuesday's board meeting.

Sean Cronin, another MBI board member, said the offer from the state and the private providers remains attractive.

"I hope as many communities take advantage of this as possible," he said.

Timothy J. Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, repeated his earlier backing for this option.

"I think it would be terrific if some of these towns move forward with the no-cost option," he said Tuesday.

GRANT PROGRAM

Meantime, the board approved a plan Tuesday designed to speed millions of dollars in state grants to towns that want to build their own systems. They include some that do not yet have any approved alternative.

Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, told The Eagle that the state determined through a forum and public comments in February that it needed to help those communities act — and fast.

"We're trying to make it as easy as possible, but there will be accountability built in," she said. "What we need to be about now is speed."

Kirk won approval from the MBI board Tuesday to use the existing MassWorks Infrastructure Program overseen by her department to allocate broadband funding to towns that opt to build on their own.

Towns will apply to MassWorks for the specific amounts already identified by the MBI to cover network design and engineering costs. Previously, that money, pegged at $18 million, was to be used by the MBI to provide those services to towns.

In some communities, this "professional services" money is being tapped to cover financial incentives to cable companies.

The new grant opportunity is expected to win approval Thursday from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative's board. It would launch April 3 with the goal of reviewing applications within two weeks and making awards before the end of the fiscal year June 30, Kirk said.

"We want tight turns on these applications," she said.

The point, Kirk said, is to "get choices in front of the towns. Once they make decisions, we'll support it."

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

MBI officials expect to meet Friday with Crocker Communications, another private provider that responded to the state's request for proposals on last-mile broadband service to homes and businesses.

Though Crocker's pitch did not meet the state's initial financial standards, the MBI has continued to explore offers from Crocker, Fiber Connect and Mid-Hudson Cable.

So far, only the Charter and Comcast proposals have won MBI approval. On Monday, MBI announced it had qualified Comcast's proposal to serve four communities, none of them in Berkshire County.

Unlike the Charter proposal, Comcast is willing to bring its network into any town that accepts. Comcast's offer targets Goshen, Montgomery, Shutesbury and Princeton.

After negotiations, Comcast's overall request for added subsidy from the state has fallen dramatically. The company's first proposal requested $5,690,000 in public investment. Its revised request to provide service in the four towns is $3,706,850 — or nearly $2 million less.

The total Comcast outlay by the MBI now would be $33,150 less than the funding earmarked by the state in its last-mile planning for those towns.

Charter's offer, however, is contingent on six of the seven towns on its list all opting in. The three Berkshires communities added to Charter's roster this week replace two that dropped out, New Salem and Shutesbury, both in Franklin County.

Charter had earlier proposed to serve Egremont, Monterey and Hancock in Berkshire County; of those, Hancock has accepted Charter's offer and Monterey has expressed support for a separate proposal from Frontier Communications, which operates in 29 states.

Frontier's pitch is to provide broadband to three south county towns — Monterey, Sandisfield and New Marlborough — and one Hampden County community, Tolland.

How it will all shake out won't be known until towns respond to the offers.

State officials said Tuesday they are eager to see results.

"We don't want to be the one to stop progress," Larkin said of the various options now before towns.

Kirk estimated that 10 to 15 towns — out of the 41 unserved communities — might opt for the grant program to build on their own. She noted that many of those communities have expressed interested in forming partnerships with a public utility, Westfield Gas + Electric, to build fiber-optic networks.

She said it was critical to give unserved towns that risk being orphaned by the cable companies a path forward. "How long are we going to ask these communities to wait, if we're only focused on private providers?" she asked, standing before the MBI board.

Don Dubendorf, an MBI board member from Williamstown, said those pushing for broadband in Western and Central Massachusetts are in a "better place."

"The plate of options is critical now," Dubendorf said. "I think there's a lot more enthusiasm for where we are."

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 43-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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