Egremont looks to fill broadband gap around Fiber Connect service area

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EGREMONT — The town is searching for a new internet contractor and service provider after negotiations were terminated with Charter Communications.

A new request for proposals seeks two types of submissions: a plan to wire the entire town for internet, or wire just the parts that are not served by Fiber Connect.

Applications are due Jan. 31. The Egremont Technology Committee will review the proposals and make a recommendation to the Select Board, which has the final vote on whether to accept the pitch.

"There is an internet service provider, Fiber Connect — what we're looking to do is cover the rest of the town where Fiber Connect isn't," said Jeffrey Lazarus, a member of the Technology Committee.

A cost estimate was not provided. Town officials are planning to finance work with the $1.9 million earmarked for Egremont in the Massachusetts Broadband Institute's "last-mile" connection program.

Beginning in 2016, Massachusetts has provided "last-mile" connector funds to provide high-speed service to rural communities lacking broadband internet. In Egremont, some people still rely on dial-up service.

Town officials have been working to bring high-speed internet to residents for years. A deal almost was reached to have Charter run cable in town, but negotiations faltered when Charter representatives said about 4 percent of the town could be left out of the service area — or 37 out of 920 homes.

The final nail in the coffin came in October when Charter announced the project cost had increased by $600,000 following the company's discovery of inadequate utility poles. At that point, Egremont walked away from Charter, and the search for a new internet provider began.

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Fiber Connect has wired about 85 percent of the town. There are now 135 Egremont dwellings that do not have access to Fiber Connect's high-speed internet, according to the request for proposals.

The homes are spread out along 14 roads, including portions of Sheffield, Undermountain, Jug End, Bow Wow, Brookvalle/Hilltop, Mount Washington, Pumpkin Hollow, Sky Farm, Miller, Hickory Hill, Shun Toll, Mill and Rowe roads; routes 71, 23 and 41; Farm Lane; and Tremont Drive.

Fiber Connect, a private Monterey company, has been stringing cable throughout the town since 2017 — which is unusual in a small community.

Many of the last-mile projects have relied on towns forging contracts with an internet contractor and service provider, and using state funds to help pay for the build-out. So far, Fiber Connect has used its own capital to construct its network in Egremont — and in Monterey, as well. Paying its own way was a necessity for Fiber Connect, after the Massachusetts Broadband Institute declined to release money to the young company, citing inexperience.

The town of Monterey is conducting an audit of Fiber Connect in an effort to prove its value to the state and to push for the release of funds to the company.

Such financing, proponents say, could speed work and perhaps lessen costs.

Depending on a customer's selection of a monthly rate and contract duration, people are paying a one-time fee of about $200, $700 or $1,000 to hook up to Fiber Connect's service.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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