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Sheffield to measure residents' internet dissatisfaction with survey and speed checks

Town is considering building its own fiber-optic system

SHEFFIELD — Responding to complaints about slow internet speeds and high costs, the town is trying to gather information and gauge potential demand for building its own fiber-optic system.

Officials hired Sertex Broadband Solutions to survey households and gather information about internet service mostly provided by Spectrum, which is owned by Charter Communications. The survey also will test upload and download speeds on the computer used to take it, so, it should be taken at home, town officials say.

Internet browser page open on computer

Sheffield is using a survey to gauge whether it should consider financing construction of a town-owned fiber-optic broadband network. 

The town then will have hard data with which to begin discussions about a potential upgrade, instead of “storytelling and anecdotes” that have pushed the town to investigate, said Select Board Chair Rene Wood.

The survey is available on the town’s website until April 30.

Select Board member Martin Mitsoff, who spearheaded the initiative, said that of about 1,200 households in town, 55 had taken the survey as of Monday. He’d like to see at least a 60 percent response rate, given how the matter of slow speeds appears to be plaguing at least some in the community.

“It would bring Sheffield into the 21st century,” Mitsoff said. “For the last three years, all I’ve heard is, “I hate my internet, I hate Spectrum.’”

A company spokesperson said that Spectrum has been offering speeds up up to 1 gigabyte for over three years, and recently doubled starting speeds from 100 megabits per second to 200 mbps. A federal report said speeds were even better than advertised.

“Spectrum Internet exceeded advertised download and upload speeds for all tiers measured — even during peak weeknight usage between 7 and 11 p.m. — according to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report issued in December 2021,” wrote Heidi Vandenbrouck, Charter’s senior communications manager.

“Our network is working as it should,” she said, adding that customers should contact customer service representatives with questions about speeds.

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After a decade of struggle, most of Berkshire County largely is connected with faster speeds compared with those in the not-so-distant past. But, some residents still are frustrated by internet speeds in systems that do not use fiber optics. Even Great Barrington lagged where data must move swiftly, and the town has worked to fix that with fiber connections.

Mitsoff, whose own Spectrum internet speeds are “so-so,” said the survey is a baby step toward discussions about what would be a debt-financed build-out with fiber to each residence and business, and one the town would own.

Some households don’t have internet because they can’t afford it, Mitsoff said. The town would work with residents to ensure that everyone can have service at a reasonable cost.

“We’re doing our best to ensure social equity plays a part,” he said.

Some areas of town never got cable infrastructure in the first place, Wood said. She said the survey findings also could help locate grant money for Charter to build out those areas.

Wood said the state’s broadband money rightly went to areas that were “unserved” by companies like Charter, but “served” towns like Sheffield don’t necessarily have “the latest and the greatest” technology.

“I consider us to be served, but not served well, and the price many people feel is high,” she said, noting that complaints from residents rose since the coronavirus pandemic hit, given the rise in remote work and schooling.

Great Barrington struggling for a path to fiber

Spectrum’s basic service starts at $49.99, as advertised on its website for a Sheffield address.

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

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