Sandisfield seeks Charter negotiations after Crocker plan fails

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SANDISFIELD — A long and twisting path to broadband might soon be coming to an end for one of the last Berkshire County towns without high-speed internet — or at least a plan to build a network.

The town Select Board voted unanimously last month to accept a proposal from Charter Communications after a previous plan with Springfield-based Crocker Communications fell through.

Some town officials are disappointed that the Crocker deal didn't work out and are questioning aspects of Charter's proposal, which would bring broadband to 96 percent of homes and businesses in town.

Others say that a deal with Charter is most practical and "more advantageous for the town, and the subscribers."

"More services available [television, telephone and internet], lower service monthly subscription rates, very low, and in most cases, no cost to subscribers to run fiber from the street to the premise," Broadband Committee Chairman Jeff Bye wrote on the town's website.

Charter's offer to the town is similar to the contract New Marlborough secured with the company in January — it involves a loan from the state that is repaid through deductions from the town's annual allotment of state money, as well as extra money from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

For Sandisfield, Charter wants $2.6 million from the town and the MBI to design and build the network, which it would own, operate and maintain. The MBI would pay Charter the town's $1.23 million share of Last Mile grant money, then cover 40 percent of the funding gap, which comes to $551,000.

The town then would owe $827,000, plus interest, all to be deducted from annual state aid until after the network is fully completed and operating. The town can choose a 10- or 15-year loan.

Sandisfield, population 893, has struggled in recent years to find an affordable broadband solution —several plans for a project have failed.

But last year, the town thought it finally had a solid plan that would keep down debt — Crocker Communications would apply for federal grants to supplement state money toward the $2.2 million fiber-optic network, potentially with little or no hit to taxpayers.

The grants came up short, and Sandisfield had to shift gears. One town official says he wished the state had offered the town the same loan and other financing support for its plan with Crocker.

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"I hate to say it, but the fact is that the state is treating Charter very differently than the way they're treating Crocker," said George Riley, a Select Board member.

But Crocker is not as financially established as Charter, according to the MBI, which must approve a company's financial viability before handing over taxpayer dollars.

Peter Larkin, chairman of the MBI board, said in an email that the agency has supported Sandisfield through its various attempts, including that with Crocker. He said the MBI had signed an action plan with the company and the town last fall, but that Charter had submitted a proposal over the winter.

"We understand and appreciate the urgency in Sandisfield to move broadband forward, so we immediately forwarded Charter's proposal to the Town as it was a serious proposal from an approved provider," Larkin said.

Riley, who says he voted to pursue negotiations with Charter "with some misgivings," also questioned Charter's subscription rates and discounts for low-income residents. He worries that introductory rates, currently at $65.99 per month for a basic package, could rise well over $100 in the third year. He also said the reduced $14.99 rate for seniors or low-income households must meet criteria that put it out of reach for most — like a child's enrollment in the school's free lunch program.

But all of this might still be up for negotiation with the company.

And Crocker's plan might have hit taxpayers, as well, Bye said. Apart from other expenses, he said it was "more than likely the town would have had to contribute a significant amount of funding to the project."

"This would have resulted in the town owning the network, responsible for operation and all maintenance," Bye added.

Now, Charter is the town's only hope, Riley said.

"This town is not going to grow if we don't have broadband internet," he said. "No young professionals will move here — no one is going to move here."

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


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