Fiber Connect's broadband build-out off and running in Monterey - and it's picking up speed
MONTEREY — Adam Chait is savior or troublemaker, depending.
The guy who's shaking things up on the rural broadband front works out of a two-room apartment in an old house on Main Street, where his office assistant is grooving to hip-hop between calls from potential customers for high-speed internet service.
"I work from 6 a.m. till about 2 a.m.," Chait said of what appears to be a mad dash to splice and string fiber-optic cables throughout town. "I take a break for dinner."
Right now the area around Lake Garfield, where he lives, is mostly lit for service.
And it's moving fast. His company, Fiber Connect, has six employees who, with a few trucks, are stringing fiber at a rate of about one mile per day. In just four days, Chait said, they had 40 homes ready for service.
And the company is about to announce to 40 households that some have fiber connections already, and all they have to do is call and sign up.
Fiber Connect already has several hundred homes signed up out of the town's total premises count of about 950. About 40 are ready for immediate service, and about 10 more imminently, Chait said.
And some households signed up at a discount in advance of the build-out in other parts of town, where the equipment that will eventually serve about 300 households is already on National Grid's poles.
And Chait estimates that 70 percent of the town — using the company's own capital — will be lit by early next year. The other 30 percent will follow, but the town will have to pay, and it's hoping for it its share of state broadband grant money.
The state in March said it wouldn't give that $1.1 million to Monterey if it used the company's services, since the state broadband authority said the young company didn't have enough of a financial track record, and not a high enough surety bond.
But after town officials begged the state to reconsider, and after Fiber Connect's backer increased that bond amount, Fiber Connect began meeting with state officials and so far the talks have been positive.
Chait went ahead with plans to string fiber in Monterey and Egremont anyway, knowing he could compete in a market of people desperate for higher speeds, where most have Verizon DSL service — desperate enough to shell out the one-time $999 startup fee with a monthly service rate of $99 for homes and $149 for businesses. Chait also does startup fee promotions for those who sign up in advance, however, usually at $499.
John Johnson, a Verizon spokesman, said the company had "no current expansion plans to share."
Chait said he's aware of this, and so Fiber Connect took cues from all around that the company could quickly and efficiently fill a vacuum.
"It was also gut feeling," he said. "We said 'If we really want to engage with the market, let's just do it.'"
"It's not that glamorous," Chait said, gesturing at the new equipment on utility poles as he drives his truck through town. "It's just tomorrow's infrastructure."
He said he's trying to make it more efficient by splicing less fiber. If a tree goes down and wipes out a segment, he said, there are fewer wires to repair and less repair time.
He pulls over and opens a "can" that's on the ground, ready for installation to show how it all looks.
He talks like a techie, speaking of ping and conduits, latency and GPON — that stands for gigabit passive optical networks. He tries to translate and explain. It's not easy on the listening end. So back in his office he draws a diagram of how all the fiber connects to everything else to make it so, for instance, parents who work in film can download big images while the kids are supposed to be doing their homework or watching TV.
This is something Chait — who also works for local special effects film pioneer Douglas Trumbull — has himself struggled with at home until a few days ago when he switched from DSL to his company's new fiber-based service.
"I used to do a round-robin with four screens," he said, of waiting for data to download on one while he worked on another and so on. And this after asking the kids to pause the TV so the download would work.
On the huge screen in his office, he pulls up a satellite map of the town, overlaid with numbered and colored utility poles — the green poles have fiber. The pink ones are the next phase of his build-out.
He pulls back to show Egremont to the west, where the poles still need to be made ready for his equipment. Soon he'll be doing the same thing there, despite town officials there having entered into negotiations with Charter Spectrum for a fiber/cable hybrid network — something that might set the stage for a mini broadband war.
"If Charter moves forward, we'll be competing," he said. "That town is hungry for fiber."
Heidi Vandenbrouck, a spokeswoman for Charter Spectrum, said the company can compete.
"Spectrum provides superior products, including the most HD channels, fast starting internet speeds with no modem fees or data caps, and a fully featured voice product," she wrote in an email. "We are confident our products and services, available at highly competitive prices combined with outstanding service, will be attractive to consumers in Monterey and Egremont."
But Chait doesn't seem worried, and says with inroads into both these towns, it makes it easy to slide into other unserved areas nearby, and do fiber build-outs for clusters of residents — which the company would operate, or operate a network for a town like Alford, which is planning to build and own one.
"See how sharp and clear that is?" he said, after clicking on a YouTube video of a flowing river in Turkey.
It is a shocking clarity. But granted, it's also a 4K — or 4,000-pixel resolution — monitor. It's all streamed from Direct TV, so while he's not offering TV service, customers can still get lots and lots of channels — he didn't have an exact count, but he flipped through them all to show the variety.
He does a speed test and we watch it run up. He explains that customers are not guaranteed 1GB, or gigabit — but it might be, or it will be pretty close.
Later, he drives around the corner to a utility pole with 2-by-4 box called the "head-end" — that is the main network hub that Fiber Connect owns. Holyoke Gas & Electric monitors the whole system.
And the whole thing is hooked into the state's "middle mile," a fiber system that runs throughout the state, with connection points even in tiny towns.
"You have a wonderful fiber asset there that's being underutilized," he said of a system in which these fiber hubs sometimes sit unused in rural municipal buildings.
Who is this guy?
It started in high school with an interest in 3-D animation. In college Chait majored in film, didn't finish, but started working on film projects. He took a lot of classes and tests to become a network engineer, got Microsoft training, and eventually went to work for Trumbull.
While doing film work in the Berkshires, he was also an IT (information technology) consultant. And it was then he met Fiber Connect's financial backer — Felda Hardymon — a venture capitalist and local arts patron who needed a fiber network built for his second home in the Berkshires so he could work there. Chait did that for him right around the time the Middle Mile was installed.
"It was the right time, the right place — everything just kind of came together," Chait said. "It hasn't been the smoothest ride," he added, referring to that initial rejection by the state.
"But we saw an opportunity. Without [Hardymon] and his generosity, we wouldn't be here."
Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871
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