EGREMONT — For at least a decade, Egremont and Monterey have struggled for a plan for universal broadband.
Those days finally are over.
In the past month, both towns have negotiated contracts with local provider Fiber Connect LLC to wire with fiber optics the remaining areas that still are without it, and to provide high-speed internet service in the towns for 10 years.
The agreements are awaiting final approval by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which administers state broadband money. And both contracts are nearly identical, since both towns were in a similar position and are some of the remaining Berkshire communities without full broadband coverage.
“It took us 15 years to get to this point,” said George McGurn, chairman of Egremont’s Select Board. “We’ve been struggling.”
McGurn credited the town’s Technology Committee co-chairs, Jeff Lazarus and Rolfe Tessem, with navigating a complex situation to forge a plan to wire the remainder of Egremont — about 10 percent, McGurn said.
In Monterey, there is about 40 percent more to go, said Select Board member Steven Weisz, who worked with the state.
Given the complexity and red tape of build-outs, it could take another year before the work is done in Monterey. And Fiber Connect agreed to wire 26 homes that it previously had said it could not, Weisz said. This will exceed the state’s requirement of 96 percent broadband coverage for towns, and bring it to 99 percent.
Fiber Connect already had begun begun stringing fiber optics through both towns on its own dime, while trying to access each town’s state broadband money administered by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.
As it made a last push to help remaining rural towns get high-speed internet, the institute last spring approved Fiber Connect as a provider, and will pay the company in installments as the work progresses.
Egremont’s share of state broadband money is about $1 million; Monterey’s is $1.2 million.
The cost of service with the company varies with the length of contract. For households and businesses, it ranges from $99 to $125 per month; $199 to $999 for installation.
Egremont’s Select Board unanimously approved the contract; in Monterey, board member John Weingold voted against it, on grounds of weak consumer protection. He wanted price controls.
So did Weisz, he said, given local incomes, but noted that a state official said Massachusetts no longer enforces price controls. He said he wants to speak to state lawmakers about the possibility of changing this.
“This utility is no longer a service for rich people,” he said, calling it a “lifeline,” particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.
While McGurn said he “happens to believe in a free market,” he understands that there is risk when “you commit your town for 10 years.”
And McGurn also said a new trend in the community has made reliable high-speed internet even more crucial — more consumers who have bought homes or remained in second homes during the pandemic, and all that it entails.
“There’s been a huge real estate turnover during COVID,” he said. “People that were on the fence are suddenly having to get their kids remote schooling.”