Great Barrington struggling for a path to fiber

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Asa Hardcastle sits in his new office above Tom's Toys on Main Street, talking about the challenge of being a software engineer in a town without a fiber-optic network.

"When Charter Spectrum [cable] goes down I plug my cell phone into the computer and I do a lot of waiting — it's painful," he said of internet speeds inadequate to do his work.

Hardcastle is part of Tonic 5, a collective of software engineers who develop mobile and web-based applications for startups, small businesses and corporations in the U.S. and internationally. He believes the lack of a fiber-optic network is holding everyone back.

"What we should do as a town is unite and put together a downtown network that we grow every year to service the whole town," he said.

On that, he's not alone.

Hardcastle is working with Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin and others who say they are trying to bring a fiber-optic network to downtown Great Barrington, saying they want to keep it current and competitive.

The town has joined with Williamstown, Pittsfield and North Adams to come up with a strategy.

Tabakin and Town Planner Christopher Rembold are working with people like Hardcastle and with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, which this winter OK'd a local assistance grant to help cable-served communities explore ways to achieve faster connections.

"We all want to end up with fiber," Rembold said of a recent session with BRPC and representatives from the other cities and town. The next steps are to talk to state officials to explore funding and other options.

Rembold said these "major hub" towns are all in the same boat, with access to middle-mile fiber, but not to last-mile grants.

One risk, Hardcastle said, is that a business might decide to set up shop in smaller outlying towns that may soon have full-fledged fiber-optic systems.

"It's not good for the small towns, and Great Barrington has an infrastructure that won't be maintained if people aren't renting it," he said.

State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, said he worries about this, too.

"We've focused so much on the unserved towns that we've created a new stable of underserved communities," he said.

HITTING WALL

At Tonic 5, Hardcastle says inferior internet service is a barrier. "The new economy is definitely driven by how quickly the information gets to you," he said.

A fiber-optic network is the most effective technology, in his view, and will allow for unlimited expansion as internet demand rises.

"The future is pure internet," he said. "The sooner we get away from the concept of bundling services the better."

But Charter Communications spokesman Andrew Russell said the company is providing a strong hybrid of fiber and coaxial cable service, and is willing to troubleshoot with customers.

"Our fiber-rich network has more than enough capacity to enable customers to do all the things they want - from streaming video to uploading large data files, to setting up an Ethernet or managed network solution for their business," he said.

Hardcastle, who grew up in New Marlborough, said this is "an infrastructure problem - the town is basically wrapped in [fiber], but you have to get it from the poles into buildings."

Hardcastle is referring to the "middle mile," fiber-optic connection points in a statewide fiber backbone, completed in 2014 by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Downtown middle-mile connection points are at the Registry of Deeds, Mason Library and Board of Health offices at the old fire station. There are a total of 18 fiber hubs, including those at the Great Barrington police and fire departments, and at Fairview Hospital.

But at this stage, getting fiber from the poles into the buildings isn't cheap.

And because towns like Great Barrington, Williamstown, Pittsfield and North Adams are served by cable, they don't have access to millions the state dedicated to helping unserved smaller towns obtain broadband internet.

Hardcastle said it would cost his landlord about $12,000 to string fiber to the building, for instance.

Just across the way, developer Ian Rasch said it would cost about $15,000 to get a fiber connection for his development at the top of Railroad Street.

Hardcastle said the cost of these one-offs, combined with "fairly available DSL" access, is limiting the town's potential.

"We're still stuck in a monopoly and stuck with a network that we have no knowledge of or control of," he said of the cable companies. And getting a fiber-optic system won't be easy, either, he added.

"Building owners will have to pay for a buildout or the town needs to pay for it — or some mix."

Spectrum said it would charge Tonic 5 a $250 fee to install a fiber connection with a $900 subscription fee, Hardcastle said, but won't allow the company to share with nearby offices to cut costs.

"Every step of the way it is a divide-and-conquer approach," he added.

But Russell said the company will work with customers to "find customizable solutions."

TASK FORCE

Steve Picheny founded a task force to find ways to attract young people to the area.

"A lot of people won't even come here because we don't have a fiber-optic system," Picheny said.

The quest for faster internet connections includes missed opportunities.

Picheny laments what transpired during the state's recent Main Street reconstruction project, which tore up Route 7 to expand it and replace some of its infrastructure.

"We had a gun to our head," he said of the brief window the town was given to add a fiber conduit into the street while it was still opened up. Picheny said the town would have had to quickly approve using $70,000 to do it.

"We were all talking about the trees getting cut down and not talking about how we were going to get high-speed internet," Picheny added.

But eyes have been opened.

Rembold said if possible, the town will add an underground conduit for fiber during a coming infrastructure redo on Bridge Street, where several developments are in the works.

And Hardcastle said he believes businesses downtown affect each other.

"[A fiber network] would feed the economy with people doing their shopping, eating and drinking right here," Hardcastle said. "If they're not working here, people convert to doing these things at home."

It is an irony, he added, that some Tonic 5 employees work from home because service in Great Barrington is "so bad."

"I have better service in Housatonic," he said.

Hardcastle said that without a fiber-optic system, connection speeds will be even more disappointing, as internet activity balloons.

But Russell said with the launch of Spectrum, speeds have increased in town, and range from 60 megabit download up to 100 megabits. He said those brief service outages that Hardcastle describes should prompt a phone call to the company to try to resolve the issue.

And Russell also said such calls have not increased, nor have there been any "widespread outages or service issues" in town "that would come with a wider issue."

But Hardcastle insists that fiber is critical for long-term sustainability.

He said a fiber-optic system will do more than boost the economy. It will help keep the town's character intact.

"Try to describe to a kid the difference between downtown Great Barrington and an outlet village," he said. "The danger of not taking this seriously is that we're going to see downtown change."

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


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