Five private companies pitch to provide last-mile broadband in the Berkshires

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Two might gobble the whole enchilada. Another just wants a nibble.

Five private companies are making the case to win millions in state funding to build last-mile internet connections in Berkshire County.

Six firms in all met the Massachusetts Broadband Institute's deadline this month to compete for $19.8 million in construction grants. One did not include any Berkshires towns in its proposal.

Since revising its strategy last spring, the institute is encouraging communities to work with private companies with demonstrated experience, a sharp turn from a possible partnership with a nonprofit regional network, WiredWest.

That move came after consultants hired by the MBI faulted aspects of the WiredWest business plan in late 2015, a critique the group called unfounded and unfair.

While MBI solicited the proposals, it did so only to provide a "single front door" for interested companies. Individual towns, not the MBI, will decide what steps to take next, but do so under new rules put in place in 2016.

One change is a shift toward large private companies. To be eligible for the RFP, firms had to have $100 million in yearly revenue and five years experience in building, operating and maintaining residential broadband networks.

For residents of towns still without broadband, the responses shed light on how willing private companies will be to join the ongoing state effort to close the "digital divide."

Some of the companies specify added costs to communities that could complicate local discussions in the weeks ahead.

The news is both good and bad. While the pitches cover all Berkshires towns, one potential vendor — the Whip City Fiber unit of Westfield Gas & Electric — declined to say how long the build-out might take.

And another, Crocker Communications of Greenfield, proposes to initially serve only 70 percent of addresses in the towns, despite MBI's statement that it expects to hit a goal of reaching 96 percent of addresses.

What's more, Crocker's plan predicts it will take 40 to 48 months for service to actually reach homes.

A spokesman for the MBI declined Friday to comment on the proposals as they undergo legal reviews. The institute posted them to its website but notes that no grants are guaranteed. More information on the viability of the proposals will be issued "in a timely manner," the agency said.

The lineup

The field ranges from small outfits such as Fiber Connect in Monterey to heavyweights like Charter Communications and Comcast.

In between, by size, stand Crocker Communications, Whip City Fiber and the Mid-Hudson Data Corp. of Catskill, N.Y.

Crocker Communications wants to be considered to build networks in nearly all of the 40 unserved communities. Whip City Fiber doesn't specify towns, but expresses a desire to be "a partner to any town or entity wishing to design, construct and operate a municipal internet network."

In his application, Matthew Crocker, president, requests $18,330,000 in funding from MBI to connect 38 communities, including unserved towns in Berkshire County. The grants range from a high of $1,290,000 for Becket to a low of $150,000 for New Ashford.

In all, the build-out Crocker envisions would cost $59,150,576.

"We are all aware of the inherent challenges in fulfilling the RFP," Crocker says in an executive summary. "If this were easy, it would be well underway."

To pull it off, and to meet eligibility rules on company revenues set by the MBI, Crocker would form a partnership with Fujitsu Network Communications. The company claims to be Japan's largest IT services provider; its U.S. branch is based in Richardson, Texas.

Though Whip City Fiber proposes to serve any of the 40 communities listed by MBI as unserved, it acknowledges that "the quantity of towns partnering with Whip City Fiber would need to be determined."

"It is difficult to ascertain a definitive project schedule," the company said, in response to a question from MBI.

An attempt to reach Daniel J. Howard, the company's general manager, was not successful Friday.

On the flip side, one of the nation's biggest cable operators, Charter, is pitching to receive state construction grant funding to provide broadband in Egremont, Hancock, Monterey, New Salem, Princeton and Shutesbury.

Terence R. Rafferty, a Charter regional vice president, said the company picked those towns for three reasons. They are close to existing Charter service, involve a "manageable capital outlay" and could be built out "in a reasonable period of time."

Rafferty noted his company's recent work with MBI to bring broadband service to 3,400 residents of Hinsdale, Lanesborough and West Stockbridge.

Like Crocker, Rafferty cited the high costs of closing the digital divide in a rural region.

Andrew D. Russell, a Charter spokesman, declined Friday to elaborate on Charter's plan.

Charter's big corporate rival, Comcast, proposes to provide service in four towns, none of them in Berkshire County (Goshen, Montgomery, Princeton and Shutesbury).

Fiber Connect, which is run by Adam Chait and funded by venture capital, submitted a plan to provide service in Alford, Becket, New Marlborough, Otis, Tolland and Tyringham.

In his proposal, Chait argues that Internet Service Providers should be local. He vowed to do business with other Massachusetts firms and noted that a two-town pilot program set up by his firm is already running in Monterey and Egremont.

"This is a unique opportunity for Berkshire County citizens to be involved in a hometown company," Chait's proposal states, "which employs workers with community roots ...."

Chait could not be reached Friday for further comment.

Mid-Hudson seeks an even more modest target, offering only to do business in the town of Tyringham by providing fiber connections to 279 premises and wireless service to another 20; it would not reach nine addresses. It seeks a MBI grant of $260,000.

Stephen Souky, the controller for Mid-Hudson, said Tyringham would have to agree to put up 1.4 miles of utility poles on George Cannon Road. That project would cost $800,000, the company said in its filing. On top of that, it asks the town to charge residents for broadband installation at about $150 a pop.

Souky could not be reached for further comment.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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