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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Leverett’s fiber-optic system a model for rural towns

Inside a green metal building in Leverett, lightning-fast internet connections pulse through yellow-coated fibers, one per customer. One strand belongs to Susan Valentine, an artist who lives down the hill on Long Plain Road in this Franklin County town. “Man, it was a long time coming,” she said recently. Another fiber threaded into the rack inside one of LeverettNet’s two electronics huts provides Kathleen Lafferty’s economic lifeline. Nearly two years after Leverett first lit segments of its fiber-optic broadband service, this $3.7 million project is a point of pride for Lafferty — and most everyone in this community of 1,800. Before, the mood bordered on shame.

“I couldn’t tell any of my clients what my office situation was, before broadband,” said Lafferty, a freelance editor who works from home and needed to receive large files. “I’d have to go to the library for downloads. It’s totally different now.” Come April, it will be two years since Leverett began to close its digital divide — way ahead of other unserved Massachusetts towns, including more than a dozen in Berkshire County. When state officials arrived to help Leverett celebrate Oct.

2, 2015, they declared the town a model. “Leverett shows it can be done,” said Eric Nakajima, then executive director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. “We look forward to building on their success in partnership with towns throughout Western Massachusetts.” But within months, that portal seemed to snap shut, lost amid turnover within the MBI and its split with WiredWest, a regional cooperative poised at the time to bring fiber-optic service to dozens of towns.

Today, leaders of broadband committees are looking again at Leverett. Peter d’Errico, a retired University of Massachusetts professor and founding member of Leverett’s Municipal Light Plant, said it came down to a willingness, after years in the digital slow lane, to act. An MLP isn’t a thing or a place, it’s the legal entity that oversees a municipal utility such as this. The town of Leverett, d’Errico said, simply decided: “We’re going to do it.” And now, recent policy shifts at the MBI provide incentives for towns that want to follow Leverett’s example by working on their own, with key state funding, to create municipal broadband networks. Two years in, work to oversee a town-owned broadband network continues — just not as frenetically as before. At a meeting of the MLP in March, d’Errico worked his way through a busy agenda with fellow board members Tom Powers and Denzel Hankinson and with plant manager Margie McGinnis, who doubles as the town’s administrator. The Eagle sat in to get a sense of the inner workings of a modern broadband network. Leverett’s MLP is the only one in the state to focus solely on telecommunications.

“We’re the new guys in town,” Powers said. Leaders of broadband efforts in more than a dozen unserved towns hope they’re not far behind. Leverett has already sought to export its expertise, making good on Nakajima’s promise a year and a half ago.

Minutes of a multi-town meeting Sept.

27, available on the town’s website, are thick with legal and technical concerns facing anyone trying to follow in the town’s footsteps. In March, the board checked in on progress to shift the town’s 670 broadband customers — out of roughly 800 households — to a new internet service provider. By putting the ISP function out to bid last summer, LeverettNet found a cheaper alternative. This month, it is shifting customers to a new vendor, OTT Communications, from Crocker Communications. The cost of service will drop $5 a month. As a municipal network, prices to customers can fall as well as rise. The agenda also reviewed recent repairs. One falling tree did $13,000 in damage to the network. The fact the tree stood on Hankinson’s property brought him in for ribbing, and prompted debate over whether to file an insurance claim.

Trees may be a broadband network’s main problem. “Branches fall more often than you realize,” d’Errico said. Another repair concerned a homeowner at 19 Dudleyville Road in North Leverett who had been using a broom to lift a low-hanging fiber line whenever a truck paid a call. But the homeowner misjudged one day last fall and waved a driver through. Down came the line. Repair cost: $1,800. “We can be shocked at how much it is, or at how little it is,” Hankinson said of repair bills. In recent meetings he and others have taken steps to improve network security. They continue to monitor bandwidth use. And while they know of customers who have set up servers in their homes, LeverettNet continues to classify all customers the same way, going back to a founding principle.

Everybody would pay the same price for download speeds of one gigabit per second — an industry standard. While Leverett shows that towns can successfully build, own and operate broadband networks, LeverettNet’s leaders caution that every community must set its own goal, then take smart and careful steps to reach it. They say the $40,000 they spent to plan their system, a bill paid by the state, determined those objectives. One principle the town followed was to put the system’s operation in the hands of three outside vendors — and then to monitor their performance closely. LeverettNet has no paid staff. “We just aren’t big enough to do all the things that have to be done,” said Powers. Other unserved towns are considering partners, including Westfield Gas + Electric, that would handle all network operations — from build to billing. After its network was constructed by Millenium Communications Corp., LeverettNet hired Holyoke Gas & Electric to operate it, Crocker Communications to provide ISP services and Collins Electric to handle repairs. Leverett received $806,000 from the state and financed the rest of the network through local property taxes and borrowing.

The average yearly tax impact per household was first calculated at $219, but after substantial savings through refinancing, that figure is down to around $100 a year, according to Powers, in addition to monthly fees for service. In the end, d’Errico said, planning for a successful network comes down to nuts and bolts, not ideals. “I think right now there’s too much vagueness in people’s ideas,” he said of other communities. Recently, he saw a slogan from a candidate promoting “universal affordable broadband.” “Now when I see that, it’s like apple pie. Wow, that’s really great.” d’Errico said. “But what I want to know is do they have any apples? Do they have ovens? Do they have baking pans?” Because of the town’s small size, LeverettNet’s leaders conduct informal surveys just by talking with neighbors.

They did run a formal customer poll, and found no problems. d’Errico says that when customers seek help, first through the ISP contractor, they often add a postscript: “They follow up by saying, ‘I’m so happy we have this.'” “If people get grumpy, they send emails or call Margie,” said Powers. “It’s like all small towns.”

Lafferty, the freelance editor, said LeverettNet has made a significant difference in her life. “We’re really proud to have this service available to every household in town,” she said. And Valentine, the artist and fellow Long Plain Road resident, is solidly in the satisfied-customer category. “We are the most fortunate little tiny town anywhere in the state,” she said. “We have better internet than Amherst or Hadley.” Both women say that after they got service, they discontinued their DirecTV service and started streaming shows. That prompted both to make runs to the transfer station, ferrying away unwanted satellite dishes. At Leverett Crafts & Arts, a gallery and studio complex in the town’s center, the network is saving people money, according to Walt Burnham, its executive director. The nonprofit was paying Verizon $130 a month; its LeverettNet bill is $96.

“It’s a good service and it’s saving us some money,” Burnham said. “If you’ve got enough tax money, it’s definitely worth doing.” Soon after the network got up and running, 80 percent of Leverett households were buying service. That has risen to 85 percent. Leverett was able to afford fiber to the home, viewed by most as the best technology. But d’Errico notes that if the numbers hadn’t worked out, Leverett would have had to make another choice. With twice the road miles and half the people, another town might not be able to afford fiber, he said.

Through the building phase, towns need solid advice, as well as someone in their corner, said Powers. “What you really need is a top-notch project manager,” he said. “Some one who is experienced and technically knowledgeable in installing this type of system.” That’s key, he said, because things are sure to get complicated — and testy.

“You need someone who understands both the economics and technology, as a project manager, in order to negotiate that adversarial relationship — which will start almost immediately and go throughout the entire project,” Powers said. Hankinson said the town’s pledge to provide equal pricing, and to serve everyone regardless of the difficulty of hanging fiber to their homes, was pivotal, as was its move to go with gigabit speeds. “We don’t regret that for a minute,” Hankinson. “It’s getting used and we’re adding to it.”

As the town nears the second anniversary, members of the MLP board are still waiting for the workload to settle down. The ISP changeover increased it for a spell. But they’re no longer meeting almost daily, as they did during the buildout.

“Take it piece by piece,” McGinnis said, when asked about that stage of a project. “And let everything evolve.” Towns embarking on projects today will compete for outside vendors, they warn. Only two ISP contractors replied to LeverettNet’s request for proposals. Not all electricians know how to splice fiber-optic cable, they say. Though a raft of state officials and lawmakers attended LeverettNet’s ribbon-cutting, that novelty isn’t like to last. “We were the first in the Valley. Being the first in the Valley means you get a lot of attention and a lot of service,” said Hankinson. “And that’s not a benefit that the second in the Valley, or the 10th in the Valley, is going to have. It has helped us to our job in an intangible way.” d’Errico said a sense of fiscal conservatism guides the board. “We want to survive.

Long term, we want to be there,” he said.

But at the start, this wasn’t a business for cowards, he said. “You do maximum due diligence — and there’s still a leap of faith.”