Broadband in the Berkshires

Monterey looks at two options for high-speed internet access

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MONTEREY — Sitting at a table in town hall, Kenneth Basler shakes his head and says bureaucracy is frustrating attempts to get homes here up and running with high-speed internet connections able to stand the test of time.

To address that, the town's Broadband Committee recently made a decision that — if successful — may bring broadband to a good part of town by the end this year.

After conversations with six companies, Monterey tentatively settled on Fiber Connect LLC, a Monterey-based internet services provider.

Basler, a Broadband Committee member and chairman of the Select Board, says Fiber Connect proposes to invest its own capital to bring service to 70 percent of Monterey homes.

The town would then finish the job using its expected share of funds from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

"Our goal is to provide this without cost to (local) taxpayers," Basler said.

Monterey will, however, continue parallel efforts as part of a four-town group that includes Sandisfield, New Marlborough and Tolland. This four-town committee recently chose to begin negotiations with Frontier Communications, which proposed a company-owned system that would have the town lit with service in about two years, according to Broadband Committee member Carol Edelman.

Growing desperate for higher internet speeds, some towns are beginning to make more aggressive plays to get fiber-optic networks up and running and to obtain each town's share of state funds to do so. They see high speeds as critical to sustaining and growing local economies.

MBI's original estimate for Monterey's fiber-optic network was over $3 million, Basler said. Fiber Connect estimated it could build the network for $1.5 million of its money plus about $950,000 in expected state grants.

The town is still negotiating with Fiber Connect, which Broadband Committee member Cliff Weiss says has yet another plus.

"With Fiber Connect the revenue stays local," he said. "Why do I want all of my money to flow out of the state to Charter or Frontier?"

CRITICISM OF MBI

Weiss said he believes the process has been slowed because Fiber Connect's response to an MBI request for proposals is still being studied by the state.

Further, Basler said he thinks the state is "dragging its feet" in vetting smaller service providers because it is so enamored of large providers like Charter Communications, which continues to woo Monterey even after it refused its proposal.

Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board, said the institute has reached out repeatedly to Monterey officials.

Larkin said the state is still working to "fully vet and qualify" the Fiber Connect proposal it received.

Only the responses from Charter Communications and Comcast met the state's financial requirements, as outlined in the request for proposals.

But the MBI has said it continues to negotiate with all of the companies that expressed interest in being part of the broadband solution.

"As the Charter proposal was qualified first, we sent letters to all of the towns covered by that proposal, asking them to host a public session with the company, to hear details on the proposal, and afterward, for the select board to hold a public vote on the proposal," Larkin said in a statement, in response to questions from The Eagle.

"While we have heard from the town leaders regarding their preference for Fiber Connect or Frontier, it was unclear from the town's communication if a formal vote was taken by the selectboard on the Charter proposal, or if a discussion of the financial impact of that proposal, which would have no cost to the town, was discussed with town residents," Larkin said. "The MBI made repeated requests to the town, both via phone and email, but did not receive any feedback to those questions."

Basler said he wishes the process was working faster. "If only we could get the state to work with us everything would be fine," he said.

OTHER TALKS


The committee will continue to work in the four-town group negotiating with Frontier.

Frontier's initial cost estimate for Monterey was nearly $2 million more than the MBI's original estimate.

But if Monterey pulls out, it will "definitely affect" the price for the other three towns, according to Sandisfield Broadband Committee member Alice Boyd. Frontier put in a bid based on these four towns going in all together.

Since stringing fiber across rural miles isn't cheap, Boyd noted that price-wise, Monterey's higher density compensated for low-density towns like Sandisfield and Tolland.

"We haven't started negotiating with Frontier yet, so we don't know what the price is anyway," she said.

In the event Monterey pulls out, the three towns would continue with negotiations, Boyd added.

For members of the Monterey committee, Fiber Connect's favored technology — fiber-optic cable — is a key feature.

They said they believe fiber is the only way to go to allow the network to remain current.

At the same time, Edelman cited steps the company has already taken.

"Fiber Connect is almost ready to go," she said, noting that many of the utility poles have already been surveyed and the company is ready to start wiring fiber optic cable next month.

"We could have 40 percent of the town up and running by the end of the calendar year," Weiss said.

Basler said Monterey wants to be loyal to the four-town group, but is keeping its options open.

"We'll make the best decision for Monterey," he said.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871.





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