Across state line, a race to close broadband gap

Capital connections … When it comes to gubernatorial statements, the leaders of New York and Massachusetts sound similar themes when talking about the need for broadband:

– From Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, March 2017: “High-speed internet is essential for connecting our communities and ensuring that all of New York can compete in the global economy. With this third round of the NY Broadband Program, we are helping to ensure high speed internet access in every corner of this state, empowering New Yorkers no matter where in the Empire State they call home and truly achieving broadband for all.”

– From Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, August 2016, announcing a $4 million grant to Comcast to expand service in nine towns: “This agreement further demonstrates our administration’s commitment to tackling broadband connectivity challenges for unserved residents and businesses. This public-private partnership will deliver sustainable, reliable, and cost-effective broadband connectivity to nine rural communities that previously faced significant coverage gaps, allowing nearly 1,100 households and businesses to participate more fully in the digital economy.”

NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — “Pretty primitive,” Dianne Hobden, of Canaan, N.Y., says of her internet connection.

“You can’t stream because it keeps buffering,” adds her friend, Lorraine Gregg, of Chatham, N.Y. Across the state line, thousands in Berkshire County towns without broadband know the feeling well.

But as both Massachusetts and New York work to expand broadband access, there are 500 million reasons New York may be able to do in three years what the Bay State has pursued for a decade. In January 2016, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a plan to get broadband internet speeds to 98 percent of New York homes by the end of 2018. In his corner: a towering pile of cash not available to leaders in Boston. New York is financing its drive with a $500 million fund amassed through fees and penalties on Wall Street malfeasance. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has access to less than a tenth of that amount through a $40 million bond authorization.

“You’ve got to take your hat off to both Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got crooks, let’s make this work,’ ” said David P. Berman, co-chairman of Connect Columbia, a citizens group. “That’s the joy of this.” Berman’s group is working with government and private companies to bring affordable broadband to the roughly 68,000 residents of the county, ranked as one of the New York state regions most in need of help.

“You could almost call it a private-private partnership. The crooks’ fines, administered by the state, have been shared with other companies. It’s all private money, to a degree,” Berman said. “Crime is paying for consumers of Columbia County.”

Reverse auctions Along with its windfall on funding, New York is taking a different approach to harnessing help from the private sector. While Massachusetts last fall asked private providers to say how much public money they’d need to bring broadband to an unserved community, New York has held “reverse auctions.”

In these, companies win by requesting the smallest subsidies. In Massachusetts, the MBI later negotiated with two of the private providers that it qualified, winning some cost concessions. Also, while Massachusetts set a target of reaching the FCC definition of broadband, the New York Broadband Program Office went higher than 25 megabits per second for download speeds. It compels private companies to provide download speeds of 100 Mbps in most places, or 25 Mbps in the most remote areas. At 100 Mbps, a high-definition movie can be downloaded in 90 seconds. Unlike Massachusetts, the New York plan does not carve out an option for municipal ownership.

The auctions for services, organized by census blocks, tap a strictly private sector solution. Participating companies can be reimbursed for up to 80 percent of their capital costs. Massachusetts broadband officials, such as Timothy Connelly, chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, have been urging towns to accept coverage from private firms. Residents of towns that decide to accept state grants to build municipal networks will cover as much as two-thirds of the cost themselves. The New York program requires no local contribution — making it similar to one of the MBI’s options: Grants and subsidies paid to Charter Communications or Comcast to expand in places they do business or enter new territory in the Bay State. New York just started its third round of awards to private companies, having earmarked about $24 million for Columbia County alone in the second round of grants in February.

Columbia’s plight Columbia County was identified as an area sorely in need of broadband, but only after local prodding, according to one participant. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 39 percent of those living in rural areas in the U.S. lack broadband, compared to 4 percent in cities. Colleen Teal, New Lebanon’s supervisor, attended a meeting in January 2016 at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, as the New York program was launched.

People from the new broadband office suggested Columbia County had decent service, Teal said. “We all knew better,” she said. “There’s nothing here.” But the future looks far brighter to Teal and others tracking the big state project.

“Everything just seems to be coming together at the right time,” Teal said. “We’re looking at a whole new ballgame.” The second round of statewide awards will finance $268 million in public-private investment in broadband and fuel 54 separate projects reaching 89,514 homes and institutions. Jeffrey S. Nordhaus, executive vice president for innovation and broadband in the Empire State Development Corp., is heading up New York’s push to close the digital divide. Cuomo acted after mapping showed the connectivity problem was widespread. “It became clear that there were pockets of unserved areas in the state,” Nordhaus said in an interview with The Eagle. The latest round paid off big time for little towns in Columbia County. New Lebanon, with 868 units, landed $2.7 million, which is to be combined with $3.4 million in private investment. The town and village of Chatham got a combined $5.1 million award and Ghent, with 687 units, will be backed with $1.9 million in state money.

Companies that secured funding to serve the county include Germantown Telephone Co., Mid-Hudson Data Corp. and State Telephone Co. “Columbia County got more money than anybody else in this last round, which is a big deal, and we recognize that,” said Berman, of Connect Columbia. “We are absolutely thrilled with it and it will make a huge difference.”

A third round of eligibility has started. At the same time, the Broadband Program Office is qualifying experts who will scrutinize the dozens of separate broadband projects to ensure they hit their goals and meet the construction deadline of Dec.

31, 2018. The point of the oversight, Nordhaus said, is “making sure all those pieces are functioning well. … I feel very optimistic that we will achieve broadband for all.” The broadband office says it is on track with timing and schedule goals. There are more than 50 projects involving 26 companies. The push is considered to be the largest and most ambitious broadband project in the country. One challenge ahead will be to reach the missing 2 percent — roughly 162,000 premises that are the most remote and not yet on the buildout list. Just in case the $500 million fund taps out, New York this year secured an additional $170 million through the federal Connect America Fund.

On the ground One thing New York and Massachusetts seem to share, when it comes to broadband, is public skepticism, born of years of disappointment. One day last week, Gregg gathered at the Blueberry Hill Market Cafe in New Lebanon with two longtime friends for a regular lunch.

“It’s not going to happen,” Gregg said, when asked about the state’s broadband push. She said she’s learned not to try to get online from her home in Chatham, using a FairPoint Communications data connection, after 3 p.m. because of system lags.

Jan Gamello, of Ghent, says her service seems to have gained slightly — and that’s a big help, since she runs a travel agency part time out of her home. “It’s improved in the past year. There must have been some complaints down the way. I think if I was doing it every day I would be more frustrated with it than I am now.”

Not everyone is seeing gains. “It’s just awful in New Lebanon,” said Hobden, the Canaan resident who joined her friends for lunch. “It’s an ongoing issue.” A sense of resignation remains. “We all live on back roads and have terrible driveways,” Hobden adds. A recent survey on broadband in Columbia County captured that gloom. Out of 103 responses in New Lebanon alone, 72 percent said they are “very” or “somewhat” disappointed with available internet service. Ninety-five percent said they are using DSL, a phone data system with extremely limited speeds that does not qualify as broadband. But that’s been about the only choice, other than subscribing to a satellite internet provider or trying to use a cellphone. One person admitted to using dial-up. Jeannie Bogino, director of the New Lebanon Library, said she believes broadband will bring benefits. “Our residents are very excited about it,” she said.

Teal, the New Lebanon supervisor, tries to combat pessimism. “It’s one of my passions,” she said of broadband expansion. “It’s such a positive change.” Until recently, Charter Communications (through the former Time Warner system) only provided cable TV service, with data connections available, in limited areas, through FairPoint.

“We want broadband for everyone,” said Teal, who on top of town duties serves with Connect Columbia and sits on a county broadband subcommittee. Economic growth in the region depends on it, she said. “It’s not going to happen until we fix this problem,” Teal said. Around New Lebanon, it’s hard to find companies that depend on fast internet, simply because it doesn’t exist. “We’ve become so used to struggling with that,” Teal said. “They’re not dependent on that type of technology because we’ve never had it.”

Howard Commander, owner of the Lebanon Valley Speedway, a bit west on Route 20, decided years ago he didn’t have the option of waiting. He paid $29,000 to connect to what’s now a Charter fiber-optic line running along the busy road. Commander felt he needed to provide Wi-Fi service for the thousands of customers who turn up for stock car races, during a season that kicked off last weekend.

“They want to be hooked up,” Commander said of his patrons. About a decade ago, seeing a similar gap in communications, he persuaded Sprint to put a cell tower atop the building overlooking the speedway. The track’s broadband connection doesn’t come cheap. It costs $750 a month and serves three businesses based at the speedway, including the firm Commander co-owns with Bill Black to construct athletic fields. Black said the data contract is up for renewal next year. “Either they get reasonable or we’ll switch,” he said. “This time next year we’ll be talking to them. We need a faster internet. If we don’t get it soon we’ll have to move our business.” At Johnny’s Barber Shop in New Lebanon center, owner John Le Barnes, a Pittsfield native, said few customers are talking about the digital divide. More are hoping for another new player in the local economy.

“Everybody wants a grocery store,” he said. “That’s the biggest talk in the town.” MOVING PARTS Teal, the New Lebanon supervisor, says the broadband puzzle is complex.

One piece is a state Public Service Commission order related to Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable that requires it to improve and expand its coverage without the carrot of subsidy. Plus, there are questions about the accuracy of maps and future gaps in coverage in Columbia County, even with all the money that will be reimbursed to private companies. But Teal wants to see service expanded now, not more talk.

“We’re going to know where those holes are about halfway through the process,” she said. Berman, the Connect Columbia co-chairman, understands the frustration people feel about existing internet speeds. “All the people I talk to want me to wave a magic wand and make this happen,” he said. “As we all know, the magic wand business ain’t what it used to be.

“It’s a slower process than everyone would like, me included. And it requires a bit of education of the consumers that this is not something that can be done overnight. But from where we started, about a year and a half ago, on just trying to raise awareness and lobby the political powers that be that so much more is needed, we’ve come a long way,” Berman said.

“That said, we’ve got a ways to go. The governor’s program is going to do wonders, but this is something that requires physical construction of actual hardware, software, etc., and that takes some time,” he said. Kevin Smith, a member of the New Lebanon Town Board, admitted that he still struggles with some older technologies. He tried to send a fax recently by phone from the pizza business where he works. No dice. That prompted him to call Charter to ask when the company would be ready to bundle services, including telephone.

“I called last week and they have no idea when that is going to happen,” Smith said. Nonetheless, like Teal, he is optimistic about closing the digital divide in New Lebanon. “I think it’ll get there. How long it will take I wouldn’t guess,” Smith said. “At least progress is being made. You’ve got to start some place.” Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.

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Egremont picks Charter for broadband, but Fiber Connect still an option

EGREMONT — The Egremont Select Board said Monday it will begin negotiations with Charter Communications to build and operate a broadband network here, but did not rule out the possibility of working with Fiber Connect, which has already begun to wire the town.

The board’s unanimous vote came after a recommendation by the majority of the town’s eight-person Technology Committee, which board Chairman Charles Flynn said spent several years and many long hours coming up with a solution to bring high-speed internet to residents. Egremont, population 1,225, is one of many rural towns in the region working to stay current in the fast-changing era of high connectivity. Broadband access is considered one of the top barriers to economic development and sustainability in Berkshire County. The board added a provision to its vote that Charter connect the whole town, not just the 96 percent of households it proposed. Charter recently pitched its services to a handful of towns, including Monterey, which rejected its proposal saying residents want a full fiber optic network — for the highest speeds — rather than Charter’s hybrid of cable and fiber technology. Technology Committee member Jonathan Taylor stood up and told the full house that the committee would have preferred a pure fiber network over a hybrid, but the cost to households was a big consideration.

“The issue was affording the service,” Taylor said, noting that it was only one factor in the committee’s decision making. Charter is offering choices of different internet speeds and packages from around $60 to $120 per household. And with state grant money in play, the Charter build out would come at no cost to the town. The committee, which Flynn also chairs, had eliminated Matrix from consideration because it had not entered the Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s qualification process, and because the company had had a tangle with the agency over its previous work on Leverett’s system, Flynn said. Fiber Connect was strong in the running, but last week the company was disqualified from receiving grant money from the MBI for lack of a financial track record. Of the MBI’s $40 million in “last mile” broadband grants intended to bring higher speeds to the rest of the state, Egremont’s share is roughly $1 million.

Without that money going to Fiber Connect, the town would be on the hook for part of the fiber system build out. But there’s a chance the town may end up with full fiber, anyway. Fiber Connect’s Adam Chait told the board he is still in the make-ready phase of stringing fiber — at his company’s expense — that would reach 70 percent of the town’s households and businesses. Chait later told The Eagle that it is far from a done deal between the town and Charter, and he restated his commitment to completing the build out, and providing a service that would cost $99 per household, or $149 for businesses. Chait also said efforts were underway for other grants and “neighbor-to-neighbor” funding that would help low-income households afford his service. “What we’re delivering is state of the art, and what the majority of people wants,” Chait said. Perhaps that’s why Select Board member Mary Brazie said there’s been some broadband drama, with swirling rumors that the board’s decision to go with Charter will prompt Fiber Connect to leave. Chait reassured everyone it wasn’t true. “I find it appalling that people lie about that,” Brazie said. “I want to be clear: We are all welcoming Fiber Connect into town with open arms.”

Brazie said she had an idea that she wasn’t sure was possible; that once Fiber Connect has wired 70 percent of the town, that the town borrow to get the other 30 percent done. She said the town in 2015 had approved borrowing up to $2.94 million for a broadband network. “This gives the town two options,” she said.

Flynn told Chait the town is still willing to work with him. And Taylor said the committee’s main concerns were Fiber Connect’s lack of a financial track record and the loss of state money. “It’s too risky,” he said. Then Flynn brought up timing, since Egremont — like so many towns — is growing impatient for higher speeds. With Charter, the town is looking at having service in three years. But he said maybe there was a way to speed this up.

“I think if we negotiate with the MBI we’ll see broadband in town far sooner,” he said. Reach staff writer Heather Bellow at 413-329-6871. If you’d like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please

Slough and Maidenhead to light up 48km fibre broadband network

Pure fibre network builder CityFibre[1] is to begin work on a 48km network backbone build in Slough and Maidenhead, having already successfully completed a major project in the nearby towns of Bracknell and Reading.

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When completed, the network will cover 38km to link Slough’s globally renowned[5] Trading Estate to its town centre, alongside a further 10km in Maidenhead, will offer area businesses broadband connections of up to a gigabit. According to the Thames Valley Berkshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), boosting ultrafast connectivity in the area could generate an additional ?1.2bn GVA for the region between now and 2024 by increasing potential for competitiveness, productivity and growth as more business is conducted online. “Berkshire is known as an economic powerhouse, and Slough in particular – a renowned hub for blue-chip businesses and start-ups – has grown its reputation as one of the UK’s most tech-savvy towns in the region,” said Nick Gray, CityFibre city development manager.

“From the latest Tech Nation Report[6], we know the digital technology industry contributes billions to the UK economy, creates high-value jobs and attracts investment from all over the world. “This presents excellent opportunities for Thames Valley communities. It is vitally important, therefore, that this growing region has the best connectivity possible to enable it to remain competitive on a global stage.”

Connections to the new network in Slough and Maidenhead will be sold through local internet service provider (ISP) BTL Communications, which also works in Bracknell and Reading. Managing director Rob Lamden said: “We have been helping businesses in the region with their IT, telecoms and internet connectivity since 2001, and we are very pleased to be working with CityFibre to make a real difference to the region’s digital landscape. “Having grown up in Maidenhead and Slough from the age of nine, I am particularly motivated to bring the gigabit revolution to the towns I grew up in.

“We are now able to offer local businesses next-generation internet services at highly competitive prices that will turbocharge their capabilities and give them a huge head start over the competition,” he said. “And of course BTL will be alongside them to support their growth and to help them take full advantage.”


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