Broadband in the Berkshires

Fiber Connect disqualified from state funds by Massachusetts Broadband Institute

Internet provider was looking to work with Monterey, Egremont

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EGREMONT — After a vetting by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, a local company that has already laid much groundwork for the construction of a fiber-optic network here and in Monterey, is now disqualified from receiving state grant money to support its endeavors.

In a March 30 letter the MBI told Fiber Connect, LLC's Adam Chait that "the lack of a solid financial foundation" led the broadband funding agency to a decision that the company will not be eligible for grants set aside for towns that do not have access to high-speed internet.

"MBI did not make this decision lightly, as your company should be commended for your interest in providing solutions to the unserved communities in Western Massachusetts," wrote MBI Deputy Director Edmund Donnelly.

Indeed, seeing an opportunity as rural towns struggle with low internet speeds in the era of high connectivity, the small Monterey-based internet service provider responded to MBI's call for proposals for getting broadband to unserved towns. The state grants will help towns pay for expensive build outs, particularly for fiber optic cables strung over many rural miles to homes and businesses.

"It's disappointing," Chait said. "We're an upstart, and we don't have any history to show success."

"But our plans don't change," he added. "Regardless of what MBI or the towns decide."

Chait said Fiber Connect was "committed" to continue building — using its own capital — a fiber optic system that would cover 70 percent of homes and businesses in each town by the first quarter of 2018.

Chait is currently in negotiations with Monterey, but not with Egremont officials, who he says are not responding similarly to his proposal.

Both towns received a copy of MBI's letter to Chait.

While Monterey officials continue to pursue negotiations with Frontier Communications as part of a collective path to broadband with New Marlborough, Sandisfield and Tolland, Monterey opened another path by choosing Fiber Connect to do this 70-percent build out. The other 30-percent would have been covered by the anticipated state grant.

In the wake of the letter, Chait and Monterey officials said they are meeting this week about other funding possibilities, and Chait said he continues to hold out hope that future MBI grants are still possible. He said previous meetings with MBI gave him this impression.

Monterey Broadband Committee member Cliff Weiss said this week alone the committee will have a number of meetings-- including one with MBI liaison Bill Ennen -- to brainstorm funding possibilities.

The committee will also meet with Chait, who does not appear daunted by MBI's letter.

"The reason we were disqualified could be mitigated in a year if we show we have 70-percent of a town covered, customers and cash flow," he said.

Chait said Fiber Connect has run fiber optic broadband services for various subscribers around the region for the last three years. Projects include the Mahaiwe Theater, Volunteers in Medicine, the Guthrie Center and Trumbull Studios, he added.

Meanwhile, the company is at the "tail end" of make ready work in Monterey, with Egremont not far behind.

And Egremont Technology Committee Chairman Charles Flynn said the town is not in a position to "close the door" on any possibilities. Thursday the committee will consider a proposal from Fiber Connect, along with MBI-approved Charter Communications and Matrix Communications. The committee will then send its recommendation to the Select Board, of which Flynn is also Chairman.

Flynn said of the three companies, Charter responded well to questions, and that it is the only company of the three that offers a "significantly reduced rate" for low-income households and seniors.

The MBI last month approved Charter's proposal to bring broadband to a handful of towns including Egremont and Monterey, and soon expanded it to include Becket, Peru and Tyringham.

Charter is offering "hybrid fiber-coaxial" system, a combination of the existing fiber backbone installed by the state, and cable television technology. The MBI says this will come at no cost or very little cost to the towns.

The MBI also said the company will offer "internet speeds consistent with their existing networks in the Commonwealth, and would offer so-called `triple play' service including telephone, TV, and high-speed internet."

But in a number of towns, officials and residents say only a pure fiber system will do, since those produce the highest speeds.

Monterey Broadband Committee member Kenneth Basler said the town had refused Charter's proposal since the town wants nothing less than a full fiber network that will keep the town current.

Flynn said a Charter representative said the company is willing to install a fiber network, something early MBI estimates pegged at "slightly over $3 million" for the entire town.

"They said, `if you're willing to pay for it, we'll do it,'" he added, noting Charter would install fiber to homes that can show they have a home-based business that requires it.

Flynn said the committee's concern with Charter was that its proposal would cover 96-percent of the town, which he said was "unacceptable," since the committee wants the whole town covered.

Egremont's total share of MBI grant funds is about $1 million, according to the agency.

Flynn said despite Fiber Connect's disqualification, the committee will still entertain the company's proposal.

"There's always a possibility that something could change in the future," he said.

Chait said he's not giving up, either, after his dive into a complicated process to bridge the digital divide in the region.

"We [got involved] to break the logjam," he said. "We said we were going to commit no matter what."

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871


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