Great Barrington to get fiber option for higher internet speeds

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GREAT BARRINGTON — There are businesses to keep and attract. There's a tax base to expand.

So this South County hub isn't waiting around to increase internet speeds.

Town officials say a local fiber-optic system builder will make it possible for downtown businesses to opt into a high-speed service from the company.

Town Select Board member Ed Abrahams announced Monday that Monterey-based Fiber Connect will work with downtown building owners at no cost to string fiber-optic cables from building to building that will provide at least one gigabyte per second, and up to 10 gigabytes for a custom service.

"Then Fiber Connect will reach out to tenants — the hope is to expand from there," Abrahams said.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin hailed the move as a "boost" to the local economy.

Abrahams said the process should move quickly.

"A few months after the easements are in hand, fiber [service] will be available."

Fiber Connect founder Adam Chait confirmed this — he told The Eagle the work should go fast once cable routes are established through each building from Castle and Railroad streets to Elm Street, and on the east side of Main Street.

Chait also said the company was paying for all this, ahead of what he hopes will be a healthy subscription rate.

Abrahams said Tim Newman, a New Marlborough-based filmmaker and local broadband activist helped him research the issue and come up with a plan that would present a new option.

"Tim did the bulk of the work and was the brains," Abrahams added.

Finding its way

Inadequate internet speeds in many parts of the county are something many Berkshire County brains, with help from the state, are working to fix.

Great Barrington is in a unique position as the hub for surrounding towns, and is faced with the pressure for technological progress that will grow a fragile rural economy into a robust one.

As the small outlying towns work with state broadband grants to build and operate systems, Great Barrington has had to find its own way.

For years, and with the help of a Mass IT Community Compact grant, town officials looked at various options, including public-private partnerships, public broadband and the creation of incentives for fiber expansion.

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But there was always the money problem — Great Barrington isn't eligible for state broadband aid because cable company Charter/Spectrum already provides the town with broadband.

Newman told The Eagle that the company's regular cable-based service speeds aren't fast enough to keep and attract businesses that are technology intensive and require both fast upload and download speeds. For that, he said, only a Charter/Spectrum custom fiber-optic system will do.

But it's expensive, he and Abrahams said they had found in their research.

"It's economically out of reach for many people, especially the small entrepreneurial companies doing media-intensive stuff that employ locals — the entrepreneurs we're trying to attract to the area," Newman said.

Abrahams said Charter/Spectrum had quoted a roughly $900 monthly fee for a custom fiber system, in addition to a one-time installation cost.

He said this kind of expense and difficulty might be turning entrepreneurs away from Great Barrington, where they might otherwise rent office space and spend money.

"We were going to be in trouble," Abrahams said of the town. "I was worried that if I could get faster speeds at my home in Egremont than at my Great Barrington office, why have an office?"

Rooftops and basements

Fiber Connect's Chait, who is currently building fiber-optic systems in Egremont and Monterey, said his standard monthly fee for residential service is $99, and $149 for businesses. He also has a more expensive custom bandwidth package.

He said that, while there will be an installation fee as well, he is hoping to keep those costs down.

For subscribers in Monterey and Egremont, those one-time startup fees can be steep — usually $999, but $499 if you get a promotion. It will depend, he said, on how complicated the work will be in each building — something he doesn't know yet.

Chait said he would begin the work as soon as possible to expand the infrastructure from that of one of his clients, The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Castle Street.

From there, he said, he would run cables through basements or across rooftops.

Chait isn't sure how he'll get the cables across Main Street yet. He said there are a number of possibilities, including running them through what is thought to be an empty conduit under the road.

Chait said if this "pilot project" is successful, he won't stop wiring up businesses, and may eventually move into residential areas.

"We're not going to stop in the business district," he said. "We'll go north."

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


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