Charter pledges full fiber in Monterey, Egremont build-out

MONTEREY — When broadband finally comes to town, it'll be at lightning speed after all.

Charter Communications says it will now offer a full fiber optic build-out to the new towns it plans to serve, wiping out concerns by many residents that the company's original plan for a hybrid system wouldn't keep up with future demands for higher internet speeds.

And the upgrade won't change a promised $4.4 million state grant to Charter to provide broadband service to five towns as part of a package, according to Peter Larkin, board chairman of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

In a Thursday email to Steven Weisz, Monterey's Select Board chairman, a Charter official said after weighing design and other factors, it is preferable to string fiber to each home. The hybrid system would have involved using coaxial cable from a central fiber node.

"An all-fiber system is a more efficient and economically feasible approach for the company," said Anna Lucey, Charter's director of government affairs.

Monterey officials earlier this year had rejected Charter's initial hybrid plan, firm in wanting a full-fiber system.

Lucey also wrote Mary Brazie, Egremont's town administrator, with the same news. Egremont officials are currently in contract negotiations with Charter for a broadband network there.

In July, the MBI said it would pay Charter $4.4 million to bring broadband service to Egremont, Peru, Tyringham and Hancock, as well as Princeton, which is in Central Massachusetts. Charter's fiber would reach 96 percent of homes and businesses in each town.

The plan comes as 19 Berkshire County communities without broadband infrastructure or service continue to work with the state to bring higher internet speeds to residents.

Larkin said this all-fiber upgrade is "positive" as it won't change the grant amount to Charter, and will be easy on town and state coffers.

"The five towns will still incur zero cost and the Commonwealth will pay nothing extra for this enhanced infrastructure," he said in an email.

And if Monterey wants to change its mind about going with Charter, the institute is ready.

"If towns like Monterey are interested in re-starting discussions given this change, we would help facilitate that discussion," Larkin said.

Charter representatives could not be reached to confirm whether the all-fiber upgrade would affect individual customer costs.

Meanwhile, around 70 homes have already been lit with fiber-based service by Fiber Connect, a small local firm. The company is still working to build out the rest of the town, and is about to start stringing fiber in Egremont as well. The company is still working with the state to see if it is eligible for broadband grant money allocated to Monterey.

Weisz said Charter's offer might be welcome news to Monterey residents who were unhappy with the company's plan to string coaxial cable from a fiber node to homes, saying it wouldn't sustain the ever-increasing speeds needed into the future.

"At the time, some people asked, `Why not just string fiber to homes?' " Weisz said, noting that town officials had asked the company why it shouldn't use unserved towns as a "proving ground."

"We never really got an answer, but I guess they heard us," he added.

Weisz said the board will gather details from the company and decide whether to begin exploring a possible contract with Charter. He also said one important consideration is how long its build out might take.

For Egremont, the news brings much relief.

"Some of our residents weren't really happy with the coaxial fiber hybrid," Brazie said. "We're very excited."

Brazie said Charter told her it could start a build out late fall and be done about 18 months later. Timing, she said, would depend on how long it would take to get permits to hook into the town's utility poles.

Weisz said he had heard the same timeline for a Monterey build-out in this quest to find the best way to get high speeds into the town as quickly as possible.

"We want to do the best thing for taxpayers, and to give them the best options," he said.

Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871 or at @BE_heatherbellow.


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