New Marlborough inks network deal with Charter, looking to bridge 'digital divide'

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NEW MARLBOROUGH — Broadband service is about two years away.That's how long it will take for Charter Communications to ramp up the network now that a long-awaited deal has been signed with the town.The Select Board recently entered into an agreement with Charter to build and operate a broadband network that would reach 96 percent of homes and businesses, and charge subscribers for service that will offer 100 megabits per second, with the choice to upgrade to 1 gigabit per second. Select Board member Nathaniel Yohalem said it will take about a year to "make ready" utility poles, and that it will take roughly another year for the higher speeds to arrive. And Yohalem said that the company would offer service to sections of town as it proceeds.Homeowners would typically pay about $66 a month for standard 100 Mbps service, or $126 a month for the upgraded service. A spokesman for the company said there would be an introductory rate of $44.99 for the first year for standard service.The town has struggled for nearly five years for a solution to bridge the "digital divide" with affordable, faster internet speeds. Like other rural towns with many road miles and few residents, finding a way to attract an internet company has not been easy, given that the town's population of about 1,500 are scattered over 86 miles of winding roads in three villages. But during a final push early last year by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the state's broadband funding arm, the agency worked to broker a proposal that wouldn't break town coffers.The arrangement calls for the company to be paid $3.1 million from both state broadband funds and money raised by property owners through taxes. This figure includes $1.7 million in the town's allocation from the state, and another $1.44 million that will be split by the state and the town, with the state acting as a sort of creditor so taxpayers won't feel the single blow. The state will deduct around $60,000 in principal and interest from other regular state aid to the town over 15 years. Yohalem has said this deficiency to town funds will be replenished through property taxes or by cutting expenses, or some combination of both.Some opponents of the deal have raised concerns that the hybrid of cable and fiber-optic technology won't keep up with future technology needs the way a full-fiber system would. But Charter maintains that its Spectrum system can stretch to meet greater speed and capacity demands.Yohalem suggested that the town had to make some concessions, as it couldn't afford to be too picky in what has been a challenging quest to bring New Marlborough into the modern age."It's the best we could do," he said.Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

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