Charter says no to Monterey, sending town back to broadband talks for $1.1M earmark

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MONTEREY — Last summer, the town said no to Charter Communications' proposal to serve the town's broadband needs.

Now, Charter is saying no.

In a Jan. 3 letter, Charter's director of government affairs told town officials that "circumstances have changed" since the Massachusetts Broadband Institute's January 2017 request for proposals to provide broadband service to the town, and that the company will not respond to the MBI's second request for bids to serve Monterey.

In her letter, Charter's Anna Lucey noted that town officials had rejected Charter's June offer of service as part of a group bid that included five other towns.

Monterey officials said they had rejected that offer, in part, over the potential for subscriber rate hikes in the future, but mainly because the company was offering a cable-coaxial hybrid rather than fiber-optics, which they are insisting is crucial for future sustainability.

The town is trying to unlock $1.1 million earmarked for it as part of the MBI's "last-mile" program to get broadband connections to those small towns and communities that are without access.

Back to the table

Monterey briefly got its hopes up that working with Charter might help release that money and bring a second option to town, when, in October, Lucey sent town officials a letter saying that Charter would offer what the town had wanted all along: a "full fiber" system.

That never panned out, and no one is saying why.

When asked why the company won't make a second bid for Monterey, Charter spokesman Andrew Russell told The Eagle he could not elaborate beyond what Lucey had said in her Jan. 3 letter.

Now, officials from Monterey, population 961, are heading back to the table after state broadband officials requested a meeting, now tentatively set for Feb. 16, according to Clifford Weiss, chairman of the town broadband committee.

"We have no idea what [state officials] are going to say to us," Weiss said.

Weiss said the committee is inside a maze of complex technical and financial decisions about critical infrastructure — all of which will affect the overall health of the town into the future.

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Trouble unlocking state money

In Monterey, it's complicated — there's already a homegrown service provider on the ground, using its own capital to string fiber-optic cables through town. So far, Fiber Connect of the Berkshires has wired about 40 percent of Monterey, and about 100 subscribers so far are lit with high-speed service, according to the company's founder, Adam Chait.

While Monterey-based Fiber Connect continues work to connect 70 percent of the town, the state has not approved the young company, on the basis of its financial track record, preventing it from receiving Monterey's share of state money, which it would use to build out the remaining 30 percent.

Since Fiber Connect is progressing quickly, Chait, Weiss and other town officials are frustrated that the MBI won't approve the company. Chait told The Eagle he and his investor will continue their attempt to satisfy the MBI's financial requirements.

But there might be another option, as well: MBI's Flexible Grant Program, which will fund companies that want to build and operate networks in towns that still don't have access.

On its website, the MBI has published, in a first batch of proposals, a list of potential providers for those towns, but Monterey isn't on that list. MBI board Chairman Peter Larkin told The Eagle the reason is that MBI had not received any proposals to cover Monterey, but that there are some proposals that could cover any unserved town.

"Also, the program is on a rolling basis, so the possibility exists that another network operator could submit a proposal covering the town," Larkin wrote.

One Select Board member is hoping to find a provider that will offer a lower-price subscription for those residents who need help. Steven Weisz, who will attend the Feb. 16 meeting, said Charter had planned to do this.

"I've got to fight to provide that for those people in Monterey," he said.

Fiber Connect is charging a one-time, $999 startup fee with a monthly service rate of $99 for homes and $149 for businesses. Chait has said that, at some point, he is hoping to offer discounts as well.

Weisz said he understands that the MBI is being prudent about what companies will get taxpayer money to build and run a broadband network.

But he also said the entire situation is frustrating.

"It's an unfortunate circus."

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


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