In Egremont, residents 'want the future', but broadband access presently has problems

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EGREMONT — One year after negotiations began with Charter Communications to provide townwide broadband internet service, the conversation has stalled.

But Lt. Gov. Karen Polito thinks the state can help bring the drawn-out debate to a conclusion.

On Tuesday, Polito stopped in Egremont, as well as Alford and several other Western Massachusetts communities, to discuss local broadband. In Berkshire County, about 86 percent of the population has access to at least 25-mbps online processing speed (enough to stream an HD movie, but not enough to stream a 4K Ultra HD movie). With the exclusion of Western Massachusetts, elsewhere in the state quality internet access reaches around 97 to 99 percent of people, according to BroadbandNow, a national internet access group.

Polito said Gov. Charlie Baker is committed to finding and removing obstacles to statewide, high-speed internet access. In November, Baker signed a $45 million bond for broadband projects. Earlier this year, the governor's administration began holding regular Thursday conference calls to connect all parties working on broadband together. The calls are "technical and tense," Polito said, but important detail-oriented questions are answered and disagreements between internet service providers, contractors, the state, and other officials are settled.

Egremont's negotiations with Charter Communications will be one of the topic's addressed at this Thursday's conference call, Polito said. Charter Communications is regularly a part of the calls.

"That's where we come into play," said Polito during the afternoon meeting at Egremont Town Hall. "We will follow up with the licensing agreement; we will work on that from our end."

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, attended the meeting as well and said the state has a lot of leverage with cable companies that could be applied for the benefit of Egremont.

"There's deep concern that there are no further delays as we head into the building season," he said.

Holding up negotiations, Egremont has a few outstanding questions for Charter. The most pressing seems to be about the 45 homes that Charter may not hook up with internet. In the proposal Charter sent Egremont, it states that Charter is committed to providing service to 96 percent of Egremont. Town officials want to know where the left-out 4 percent is located. Select Board Chairman Bruce Turner said the town may use some of the bond money voters previously approved at Town Meeting to connect the 4 percent to the internet.

"Maybe we come in as the town to lay some conduit down the road," Turner said. "The next step we as a board need to do is figure this out, but that's why we need to know the customers and where the 4 percent is going to be."

For the past two decades Berkshire County communities have been working with each other, private industry and the state to bring broadband internet access to the furthest edges of Massachusetts. Plans were made and scrapped, money was appropriated and frozen, and local technology committees were run ragged. At this point towns are starting to "light up," meaning they have access to high-speed internet. Alford, for example, went online Tuesday.

Lacking quality digital connection, many residents and businesses have had to tap into the web using slow dial-up or DSL internet connections. At the meeting with Polito, a Gilbert Road resident said he uses the Bluetooth technology on his smartphone to wirelessly supply the internet-ready equipment in his house with online access. It costs him another $600 a year in data fees.

Patrick Reardon, of Under Mountain Road, stood and held up a red Netflix envelope during Tuesday's broadband meeting.

"This is what streaming looks like here," said Reardon who added that his husband would have been at the meeting if he didn't have to fly to Houston for work, in part, because the couple doesn't have home access to the type of internet that could facilitate an online conference call.

Reardon said the need for quality internet access — and all the information and community connection it provides — in Egremont is a safety concern.

"We are very remote," he said, "if something happens, that's a public safety issue."

Meanwhile, there is continuing pushback from residents who are against using Charter as Egremont's internet service provider and favor a local option, Fiber Connect, instead. Both Fiber Connect and Charter Communications pitched internet service agreements to Egremont and the town's Technology Committee recommended Charter. Among the reasons the committee gave for selecting Charter is the company will offer a range of service packages and won't charge the town to build out the infrastructure — state grants will take care of that. Fiber Connect was ruled out as an option for the town by officials when the state denied Fiber Connect build out grant money noting the five-year-old company's lack of financial track record.

Fiber Connect began wiring the town for internet service last year and has some streets, including Boice, parts of Baldwin Hill, Creamery roads and parts of routes 71 and 23, lit. Select Board Vice Chairman George McGurn said Fiber Connect will soon have 70-80 percent of the town wired for internet.

Residents at the meeting who favor Fiber Connect said it is a better option for Egremont. Fiber Connect is installing the faster and higher-capacity fiber optics. Charter will install cable.

"We want the future," Reardon said.

Polito said she will take what she learned in Western Massachusetts back to Boston to help extend high speed internet to all of Berkshire County.

"You have the full support of the administration," Polito said. "We are fully committed to serving this community."

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


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