Our Opinion: By fits and starts, county broadband advances

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Inch by inch, the last mile of high-speed internet connections for Berkshire communities moves toward completion. Disappointingly, however, with the demise of a countywide or even regional approach this process continues to be less than democratic.

In Lanesborough, Hinsdale and West Stockbridge, Charter Communications is moving toward completion of its upgrade and expansion of high-speed Internet connections (Eagle, March 14). Ninety percent or more of Lanesborough and West Stockbridge residents will have high-speed broadband and Hinsdale is moving toward 70 percent. Town officials express their understandable pleasure with this progress.

A $1.6 million grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to Charter was critical to the success of this project. Cable and internet giants will be reluctant to move into rural areas that don't offer the prospect of substantial profits. Government financial incentives will often be required to bring those corporations into those communities or to encourage them to expand basic coverage if they already have a presence, and kudos to MBI for providing grant money to Berkshire communities that have advanced this process.

Operating as a collective, four South Berkshire towns that are among the most rural in Berkshire County — Sandisfield, Tolland, Monterey and New Marlborough — have chosen Frontier Communications to build and service a fiber-optic network (Eagle, March 14). Charter, however, has reportedly come to the MBI with a proposal that includes Monterey, as well as Hancock and Egremont, so it is possible there will be further shifts. Monterey broadband committee member Cliff Weiss said the choice of Frontier is preliminary.

The MBI has also provided funding for this South Berkshire project, but these sprawling communities may still be stuck for considerable costs. Sandisfield, for example, will have to come up with $3 million for the project, which according to Sandisfield Select Board Chairwoman Alice Boyd, translates to $244,800 per year for 15 years. Frontier impressed the collective committee for its responsiveness to the needs of the four communities, according to Ms. Boyd, and taking a pass on broadband internet in this day and age is not an option, but the price tag is not modest.

Former Sandisfield broadband committee member Jean Atwater-Williams told The Eagle that voters originally believed that the town would participate in the larger regional approach offered by WiredWest, a nonprofit cooperative that once had several Berkshire towns, including Sandisfield, poised to participate. The close relationship between MBI and WiredWest unraveled, however, when MBI expressed concern about the cooperative's business model in late 2015, and progress on the last mile front stalled. The MBI prefers now to work with large companies with long track records in the field and deep financial resources — like Charter. WiredWest's new model is to operate internet systems for small towns after the communities have built them.

Ideally, the original fully regional approach would have assured that the communities in Berkshire County seeking high-speed broadband would have been joined on a level playing field in terms of funding and time frame for their projects. Going forward, the state, which underestimated the cost to communities to complete this final mile, must provide more grant money for MBI to distribute. As Hinsdale Town Administrator Ryan Aylesworth told The Eagle, this is "not a luxury item." High-speed broadband is a necessity for many businesses and for people who want to work from home, making it critical to the economic future of rural Berkshire communities.

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