New Marlborough broadband hearing with Charter reps Friday as town approaches decision

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NEW MARLBOROUGH — With a cable company's broadband proposal in hand, town officials are on the brink of a decision about whether to seal a long-awaited deal for high-speed internet.

Charter Communication officials will come to Town Hall for a public hearing at 7 p.m. Friday to answer questions about the company's application to provide the town with its Spectrum broadband service.

And on Monday, at its regularly scheduled meeting, the town Select Board will discuss and possibly decide whether it should go with Charter, which would be paid $3.1 million to build a network that would reach 96 percent of homes and businesses, and charge subscribers for the service.

"We've seen all the paperwork, but I would like to hear what happens at that meeting [Friday] night," said board member Nathaniel Yohalem. "I want to hear Charter's responses, to keep an open mind."

The decision follows nearly a half-decade of failed attempts bring affordable, faster internet speeds to this town of about 1,500 residents who are scattered over 86 miles of winding roads in three villages, a place near the Connecticut border where cellular connections are iffy or nonexistent.

But early last year, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute made a push to connect the towns still without broadband to try to end this "digital divide."

It attracted Charter, using the town's $1.7 million state allocation for broadband as an inducement.

But this leaves a $1.44 million gap from the $3.1 million Charter had demanded to build the network — a gap the state and the town would split, at $720,000 each.

To make it more palatable to the town, the state offered to serve as its creditor, to which it would pay it off over 15 years. So that taxpayers wouldn't feel a sharp blow, the state said it would simply deduct around $60,000 annually in principal and interest from other regular state aid to the town.

But this deficiency in aid would then have to be replenished through property taxes or by slashing expenses — or a combination of the two, Yohalem said.

One town broadband official had pointed out in April that this financial scheme might make New Marlborough the first of the unserved towns in Western and Central Massachusetts to have to pay to have a cable company service the town.

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There have been other criticisms — everything from the state's preference for big cable companies, to the network infrastructure itself, which is not expected to feature a full fiber-optic system, despite the presence here of the state's own middle-mile fiber backbone.

Coaxial cable and fiber-hybrid systems, critics say, won't keep up with future technology needs the way a full-fiber system would.

But Charter maintains that its system can stretch to meet greater speed and capacity demands, according to a Charter spokesman. It's Spectrum internet speeds will start at 100 Mbps, with the choice to upgrade to Spectrum Internet Gig, which provides a 1 gigabyte per second.

"Our fiber-rich network is state of the art, and has plenty of capacity to deploy dramatically faster speeds, broadly and quickly, in all our service areas," Andrew Russell wrote in an email.

Fiber or hybrid?

Richard Long, the chairman of the town's broadband committee prior to its being disbanded, said it's still murky whether full-fiber, from pole to home, will be in the offing.

"We originally believed we were getting a full-fiber system," Long said. "The plan [for fiber to the home] is not quite clear. Contractually [Charter] agreed to a hybrid system."

Long said while he thinks the town will be well-served with internet from Charter "way exceeding anything that is available at present," he acknowledged the desirability of full-fiber.

"We would have like to have seen full-fiber, and that may be what we see — we don't know for sure."

Tim Newman, a Wired West official and vocal advocate of full-fiber, said he's not sure if he has any fight left in him to try to stop this plan, which he vehemently criticized when it was first outlined.

"The train has left the station," he said.

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


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