Many Berkshire towns still waiting for their connection to fiber-optic line
OTIS -- Some municipalities are finally clicking away with high-speed Internet access -- but only after a long, frustrating wait. Others are still waiting.
In the last two weeks, Farmington River Regional Elementary School and Otis Town Hall were connected to the "middle mile" section of the state-led MassBroadband 123 project, which is bringing high-speed Internet to rural Western Massachusetts towns.
Other Otis town institutions, including the library and fire station, are expected to be connected next week, according to Bob Rocke, who serves as a town liaison on broadband matters.
The enthusiasm at this point is tempered, though, after a frustrating seven-month wait since the system was first unveiled to great fanfare in an April ceremony featuring Gov. Deval Patrick.
"They were told back in (April) when the governor was here that we were operational," Rocke said. "People would go to the library and town hall, and people would show up and they couldn't do it. They were frustrated. We were frustrated. It was a big mess."
The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative has indicated town institutions from Springfield to Mount Washington are currently able to use the new fiber-optic network. The entire county was expected to be connected by July, but thus far only South County's fiber-optic segment is operational.
However, nearly all South County towns contacted by The Eagle say they are not on the fiber-optic network. Town representatives in Alford, Egremont, Monterey, New Marlborough, and Sandisfield say they are not able to use the network. Otis was the only town connected.
Director Judy Dumont, of the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative, said the connection is operational, but there could be an initial delay while service providers work to connect institutions with the network.
"As long as the service provider can interconnect the two networks, there shouldn't be any delay with that," Dumont said.
The delayed rollout in part can be attributed because at least one Internet provider, Pittsfield-based CornerStone Telephone, was dealt a setback when MBI delayed countywide operation of the fiber-optic network, according to Christa Proper, executive vice president of business development.
The company had planned to connect customers through a Pittsfield connection hub, but that backfired when MBI announced the hub wouldn't be operational until December.
Since then, CornerStone has been working on a short-term workaround solution. Its customer, Otis, is currently connected due to an arrangement with a wholesale provider to distribute service through the Springfield Internet hub.
CornerStone customers also include Mount Washington and Monterey.
"I think they're frustrated and we are trying our best to get them up as fast as we can," Proper said.
Meanwhile, other towns have taken notice to the problems.
Jean Atwater-Williams, Sandisfield's chairwoman of technology, said the town has postponed signing an agreement with a new online service provider. The town had intended for the Sandisfield Town Hall annex, with its seven employees and the Council on Aging, to be connected, but that will have to wait.
"Sandisfield is not yet connected," Atwater-Williams said. "We heard neighboring towns are having issue and we prefer not to sign up for more trouble. We were waiting to get that resolved. We have a contract that's not yet been signed. We are ready to pull the trigger, but we are waiting to be sure the other towns have it up and running and working."
Farmington River Regional Elementary School was connected to the broadband service on Oct. 4, Information Technology director Laurie Flower said. The district relies on Crocker Communications for its service, but it still had problems with the installation.
"We tried to be patient, but when the students started asking about the faster speed ... that's when my frustration showed," Flower said.
But Flower said now that the school is connected, there is obvious benefit. The school's DSL, or digital subscriber line service, provided only half the 5 megabytes per second the school is currently using. The new fiber-optic network can allow up to 1 gigabyte per second.
"Despite only upgrading to 5 megabytes per second, because we are a small school with a limited number of devices, we have noticed a significant difference in the quality of our connections," Flower stated.
Otis will probably keep its current service as a backup until the broadband service proves it effectively operates, Rocke said. Rocke said every couple weeks he'd contact MBI and its service partner Axia and CornerStone to ask when the town would be connected to the network.
"I've been pushing for this stuff for 10 years right now, and we finally seem to get this, but they don't seem to be getting it right," Rocke said.
Dumont said she has heard the complaints, but in the long run, the project should be a boon to the region.
"This is a network that will benefit the region for decades to come," Dumont said. "Yes, there are kinks to be ironed out to get process connected to these early sites. I don't see this in any way affecting long-term impact (of bringing fiber-optic) to the region."
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