PITTSFIELD — A Berkshires lawmaker's new bill would make it easier for cities and towns to get into the broadband internet business, encouraging competition that could produce faster download speeds.
But the measure is sure to be opposed by utilities that would lose access to millions of dollars in fees.
Before fiber-optic cable can be strung on utility poles, space for new telecommunications lines must be prepared in a costly process known as "make ready."
Make that pole space ready for free, says state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.
"The make-ready costs are ridiculous," he said. "That's really a game-breaker."
In a late-file bill that has attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, Barrett proposes to change state law to allow municipalities to have access at no cost to space on utility poles that stand on public rights of way. Cities and towns would not pay when taking steps either to improve internet service or address public safety. The measure would undercut revenues to utilities like the electricity and phone companies that own poles and handle make-ready work.
As of Oct. 1, the state's "last mile" broadband project had allocated $3.6 million for cover overruns in make-ready costs to seven unserved communities. That figure is a fraction of what the state has paid utilities for make-ready work in the yearslong drive to close the digital divide.
Barrett says the purpose of his legislation is to remove a weighty financial barrier for municipalities like Williamstown that are considering ways to provide what they believe would be higher-speed internet connections than what's available to local residents and businesses.
The effort is not part of the state's effort to bring broadband internet access to unserved rural towns in Western and Central Massachusetts.
Instead, the measure, HD.4492, seeks to provide an alternative for communities served by commercial internet companies like Charter Communications.
"The only way there's going to be effective competition is to have municipalities take it on," Barrett said of internet service. "It's got to be put on the table. Municipalities, if they can find it affordable, will do their own [networks]."
In the language of Barrett's bill, "underserved" cities and towns include those that do not have access to the dramatically faster download and upload speeds made possible in the region, in part, by the state and federal government's $90 million investment in MassBroadband 123.
That 1,200-mile fiber-optic network, known as the "middle mile," runs through all towns in Berkshire County.
"The underserved community is that community that does not have the highest speed of broadband that the 'middle mile' can provide," Barrett said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, is a co-sponsor. She has already helped Pittsfield obtain a $75,000 state allocation to examine ways the city can expand access to higher-speed internet connections. State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, also signed on in support.
"I think it makes a lot of sense," Pignatelli said. "These are poles in our communities and the middle parts of them are for public use. Why not have that access for our communities?"
Fiber-optic cable is typically able to provide download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. The FCC definition of broadband download speeds is 25 megabits per second — one-fortieth the speed of gigabit broadband.
To illustrate the difference, gigabit speed can download a two-hour, high-definition movie in 25 seconds, compared to 32 minutes at 20 megabits per second, according to the website fastmetrics.com.
The state of Maine enacted a similar law in June.
"I think this is a big economic development thing," Barrett said of access to faster speeds. "Charter is not providing the necessary speeds. Most people understand that streaming is the wave of the future — and is now here."
Andrew Russell, Charter's director of communications for the Northeast, says his company is already offering gigabit speeds.
"We agree consumers should have access to faster internet speeds," he said in an email in response to questions about the bill. "That's why we've offered gigabit connections to residents and small businesses in the Berkshires for almost a year and a half."
Russell said Spectrum Internet Gig is available without geographic restrictions in Berkshire County. He said the company's "starting internet speed" is 100 megabits per second.
Told of that claim, Barrett said he isn't convinced the Spectrum service is widely available. "I would challenge that. It hasn't been advertised at all," the lawmaker said.
To test Spectrum's claims, Barrett went to the home of a constituent who has internet service through the company. Together, they called Spectrum and requested information on an upgrade to gigabit speed.
Barrett said the two were told over the phone that the service was not available to that location in North Adams.
"They say 'We're working on it,'" Barrett said. "It isn't there. This is why we're going after them. They're playing silly games and it's awful. They're selling speeds that aren't there."
Barrett said he and the constituent also performed a speed test of the service. While the customer purchased a package offering download speeds of 100 megabits per second, that in-home test showed speeds of 18 to 30 Mbps.
When told of Barrett's test, Russell insisted that gigabit service is available in North Adams. "It requires an in-home visit from a technician and if a customer wants to upgrade to that service, we are happy to schedule an installation," he said by email.
And he said that the customer's own devices, home wiring or Wi-Fi signal strength could be responsible for the lower speeds.
Russell asked for information on the customer involved in Barrett's test. "It's grossly unfair to continue to cite an example of a service availability issue at a particular address without giving us the opportunity to validate it," he said.
Priscilla Ress, spokeswoman for Eversource, said the company is reviewing Barrett's bill. She said Eversource is helping towns obtain broadband service by preparing poles — under the current system that includes payments to the utility.
"By the end of the year, we will have changed out more than 600 utility poles and worked nearly 12,000 hours to accommodate broadband across 20 towns," she said by email.
Ress said Eversource has construction projects going in Becket and Windsor and in four other area towns and is expediting make-ready work to expand broadband access.
A spokesperson for Verizon, which also owns utility poles and performs make-ready work, could not be reached for comment.
In a letter to fellow lawmakers, Barrett said that despite the state-sponsored "last mile" drive, "more and more communities are considering building their own municipal broadband network."
"In Berkshire County," he wrote, "recent studies have shown that it will be affordable for communities to construct their own broadband network with the elimination of make-ready fees. When I began looking at the impact of make-ready fees, I was shocked by what I found."
Barrett said he believes that of the tens of millions of dollars the state has spent to bring broadband to unserved towns, 25 to 40 percent has gone to utilities for make-ready work. "The utilities have done very well."
According to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the cost of make-ready work was originally estimated to be $10,860,000 for the 22 towns building their own fiber networks.
With recent additions from a contingency fund, that amount is now roughly $14.4 million.
In an August post to his Facebook page, Barrett complained about Charter/Spectrum's move to change the due date of its bills — and hinted at his bill, which had not yet been filed.
"Competition is coming for Spectrum as more and more communities are looking at ways to have their own broadband service for residents and businesses," he wrote. Barrett noted that Williamstown and Pittsfield are exploring the possibility of providing their own broadband service. "I'm sure there will be more to follow," he wrote. "Charter/Spectrum has held us hostage long enough in Berkshire County."
The commentary had drawn 154 comments as of Thursday and was shared 166 times. "I have been fed up with them for a while," one woman wrote in response to Barrett's statement, saying she had cancelled Charter cable and phone service. "I only keep my internet with them because where I live we don't have any other options."
"It will be a great day in the Berkshires when competition comes and Charter/Spectrum becomes a name of the past," another woman posted.
"Monopolies are never good for the consumer," said a third Facebook user.
"I'm going to find competition for Charter," Barrett said in an interview. "Some way, I'm going to find it."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.