Sandisfield on cusp of broadband deal with Charter amid tech concerns

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SANDISFIELD — Despite some concerns, the town appears to be on the cusp of signing off on plans for a long-awaited broadband network.

The town Select Board, if at least two out of its three members sign the agreement with Charter Communications on Monday, will set in motion the work needed for this town of 893 to have high-speed internet, likely in no more than two years.

Some town officials are worried that Charter might install a hybrid of fiber-optics rather than a full "fiber-to-the-premises" system unless it is specified in what is a standard licensing agreement for the company to do business in a town.

While Charter spokesman Andrew Russell said that Sandisfield would get its "state-of-the-art" network with an "upgrade path to 10-gigabit speeds," he was not specific about exactly what kinds of technology would be used.

But in April, a Charter official did say the company would use the "fiber-to-the-premises" technology.

And the chairman of the town's Broadband Committee says he's not worried — he is confident that the company will wire the town with pure fiber, which is considered more sustainable for future technology upgrades than coaxial cable, the traditional cable used by telecom companies.

"They aren't going to put coaxial here," said Jeffrey Bye, noting that Charter now tends to use fiber in the new towns it services. "They'll be stringing fiber-optic cable in a new build community."

Bye pointed to Princeton, another Massachusetts town in which Charter completed a full-fiber network in 2018. He said town officials told him that the town's agreement with the company is "identical" to that with other Berkshire towns and the one Sandisfield is about to sign.

While Bye said he tried to change the language in the agreement to specify "100 percent fiber," the company wouldn't agree to it.

"The lawyer said no."

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It's been a long road to any kind of plan for Sandisfield, one of the last in Western Massachusetts to develop a plan for broadband given budget and geographic constraints.

The far-flung town's 81 road miles and low population have made it a challenge to find a company willing to invest with so few customers. The town has seen several plans fall through — two of those have been in concert with neighboring towns to try to pool resources.

But the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, the state's broadband funding agency, added a new grant program that will fill 40 percent of the gap, or $551,000, between Sandisfield's $1.23 allotment from the MBI and the $2.6 million Charter required to design and build the network to cover 96 percent of the town.

The rest, $827,000, plus interest over a 10- or 15-year period, will be deducted from state aid to the town until after the network is complete and operating. Neighboring New Marlborough entered a similar contract with Charter and the state earlier this year.

Sandisfield officials have said that getting broadband is urgent and critical to make the town economically viable into the future.

But in the Select Board's July and August report, members expressed concern about "Charter's refusal to specific Fiber to the Home (FTTH)" and said the "only hope now for a future-capable network" is for the MBI to specify this in the agreement and "protect the town's interests."

Yet in an April letter about Charter's proposal to provide service to Sandisfield, Terrence Rafferty, Charter's regional vice president, told MBI board chairman Peter Larkin that he looks forward to working with town officials on the "terms and conditions of a mutually beneficial agreement to provide our company's advanced products and services over its state-of-the-art network utilizing fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) technology."

In an email to The Eagle on Thursday, Larkin said that Charter will provide for the future growth capacity that Sandisfield needs, and will immediately offer basic speeds that exceed the federal broadband standard of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. He said that Charter’s proposal also offers higher tier upgrades that are "hundreds of times faster than what exists today in the town."

Bye said ideally the network will be up and running by June of 2021. It's unclear what the rates will be at that point. The current introductory rate for a basic Charter package is $44.99 a month, with reduced rates for seniors and low-income residents who qualify.

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

This story has been modified to clarify Larkin's statements regarding Charter's broadband proposal.


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