With new grant for Egremont, Monterey fiber, most of Berkshires coming up to speed

Most existing free broadband hot spots in Central and Western Massachusetts, created in April, have been extended through June.

MONTEREY — A $2.2 million state grant for a locally owned firm to finish building a fiber-optic network in two Berkshire towns will bring most of the county one step closer to closing a digital divide that long has plagued rural residents with slow or nonexistent internet.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute announced Wednesday that the money will go to Monterey-based Fiber Connect LLC to complete construction of a network in Egremont and Monterey that will serve most homes and businesses.

The timeline for the expansion will depend on how quickly the utility companies can get their poles ready. Adam Chait, Fiber Connect's founder and CEO, said the pandemic has slowed work by companies like Verizon. But, once that make-ready work is complete, Chait says, he can string fiber to the remaining areas of the two towns in a year to 18 months.

The company also will offer discounts to go with its regular pricing that runs from $199 to $999 for installation and monthly fees of $99 to $125, depending on the plan, Chait said.

Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as other state and local officials, say they are thrilled with the progress. They also say they are relieved, especially amid a pandemic, and given the long road taken to make this deal.

"The COVID-19 public health emergency highlights how important high-speed internet is for our residents, providing critical links for learning, connecting with family, telehealth, and remote work," Baker said in a statement.

Out of 53 communities without broadband in Central and Western Massachusetts, 21 now have active networks and 11 others have systems nearing completion, all with the state's help.

The South County towns are two of the few in the county remaining without widespread broadband, or at least a plan in place with the state for a network with a larger telecommunications company. Some towns decided to build and own their own networks, with help from money allocated from the MBI.

Monterey and Egremont were flashpoints for the broadband crisis as Chait's local startup, founded in 2014, decided to use its own capital to wire what is now about 60 percent of homes and businesses, but couldn't get the state money allocated to the towns to finish the job. MBI, the state's broadband funding arm, initially said the company did not have the financial track record to receive that public money.

But, with the advent of it's flexible grant program and more analysis, the two towns, the MBI and Fiber Connect made action plans last summer. This included agreeing on safeguards that would protect the taxpayer money, according to a statement from Brian Noyes, the agency's director of communications and marketing.

But, it still will take some time.

"There is still a long way to go before we can say mission accomplished," Donald Coburn, a member of the Monterey Select Board, said in a statement. "But our confidence in the project has been buttressed and remains strong."

At the start of the pandemic, Chait and the MBI separately installed free hotspots in these and other towns that still are without access.

Chait, who has been backlogged trying to safely install systems for second-homeowners fleeing New York City amid the pandemic, said he is thrilled.

"This has been a lot of years in the making," he told The Eagle, noting that his system will eventually and continuously run from the New York state border to the Otis border, passing through Great Barrington.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.