How do we get in the fast lane?

Four Berkshire communities join inquiry into getting faster connections, boosting business

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WILLIAMSTOWN — While many Berkshires towns still lack broadband service, Williamstown wants even faster internet than it gets from phone or cable firms.

After more than a year of study, the town is taking steps to find it. And it is joining with three other communities — Great Barrington, North Adams and Pittsfield — to study ways to remain competitive with places able to provide faster connection speeds.

Last week, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission approved spending up to $10,000 to help those four communities map their options.

"We'll start a discussion fairly quickly. We'll see where it goes," said Nat Karns, executive director of the commission.

In a letter late last year to Gov. Charlie Baker, the commission outlined broadband issues that go beyond the struggle of unserved towns to close the digital divide.

At the top of the list was the fact that communities that create fiber-optic networks will be able to provide much faster internet connections than the Berkshires cities and towns that rely on cable or phone connections.

Karns said more than 10 other Berkshires communities receiving broadband coverage through a cable connection may be interested in the study's findings.

"All of these communities that basically rely on Charter, they're all in the same boat," Karns said.

"It's really going to be driven by the communities and what they want to pursue," he said of the study. "Everybody would be invited."

WILLIAMSTOWN ACTION

Williamstown officials say higher upload and download speeds would help generate economic development because it is attractive to people in highly technical fields that could choose to locate business in Williamstown.

"Having faster broadband would be good for residents, good for business and good for economic growth," said Andrew Hogeland, chairman of the Select Board.

Because of its existing broadband service, Williamstown doesn't qualify for aid from the "last mile" effort underway at the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative.

Williamstown assembled a group a few months ago to study the potential and the logistics of obtaining higher speed broadband, especially for upload speeds.

Hogeland last week delivered a report on that effort. The next step, he said, should be determining how to get faster broadband — and at what cost.

The board approved composing an article for the Town Meeting warrant proposing an request for proposals to hire a consultant, for up to $25,000, to conduct the study.

The Williamstown Economic Development Committee called for such a study in December 2015. Since then, the working group has interviewed professionals in the field, including leaders of the MBI.

Hogeland noted that a Berkshire Eagle survey showed a median download speed of 32.3 megabits per second (mbps), with a top speed of more than 61 mbps. Upload speeds came in at about 1.7 mbps.

There is a fiber optic network in town, with speeds in the gigabytes per second, but subscription is expensive and only a few users, such as the Clark Art Institute and Williams College, use the service, he noted.

The only cable provider, Charter Communications, plans to upgrade to 50 mbps in the coming years, Hogeland said, with the options to purchase a 100 mbps broadband package, but the upload speed would remain the same.

Speeds needed to stimulate economic growth would be much higher.

The town's working group envisions three ways of getting faster broadband.

- One calls for town officials to convince Charter Communications (formerly Time Warner) to upgrade the Williamstown network to allow for higher speeds.

- The second plan is to propose the engineering study to determine how to install a municipal fiber-optic network through town in phases, and how much it will cost.

- The third is the study that the planning commission OK'd last week.

"We need to know these pieces," said Town Manager Jason Hoch. "We need some professional help to better understand the investment."

He noted that Charter or Verizon are unlikely to roll out fiber because population density doesn't make it financially attractive.

"This study will tell us how high the mountain is that we have to climb," Hogeland said.

Selectman Jeffrey Thomas backed the idea of teaming with others communities to seek higher speeds.

"With that we can apply some market pressure," he said.

Selectwoman Jane Patton said the study will be an important step.

"The worst thing that could happen is we'll find that it's impossible," she said. "And economic growth is the selling point."

'SCARY' REALITY

C.J. Hoss, Pittsfield's city planner, said people need to understand the constraints of existing broadband coverage. He noted that towns like Mount Washington are poised to provide faster internet connections than businesses can obtain in his city.

"That's scary because this is the prime business center in the county," Hoss said. "This has become one of those basic utilities that we're not providing."

The first step in the study, he said, will be to understand how existing broadband service affects life in the four communities.

"This is an issue for all of us," Hoss said.

The grant application, submitted by Hoch of Williamstown, notes that while existing broadband meets the Federal Communications Commission standard, that may not be enough.

"There is regional concern that local officials must continue to encourage system investment," the grant application states, "so our region is not left behind in terms of technology access and can support varied new types of businesses that rely on such services well into the future."

Christopher Rembold, the town planner in Great Barrington, confirmed that his community is poised to take part.

The study expects to map its scope by April and get to work on research in May, aided by staff of the commission and Williamstown.

That will lead to a report on how communities "can push our corporate broadband providers into providing sustainable fast and reliable broadband internet service well into the foreseeable future," the application said.

The commission funding comes from the roughly $206,000 it receives yearly as a line item in the state budget for district local technical assistance.

Williamstown is serving as lead community, Karns said.

He cautioned that the study alone is only the start of addressing that problem.

"Ultimately it will take a lot of resources," Karns said.

Reach staff writer Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301. Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214.


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