It's Not That Simple: Why is internet service better and faster in Mt. Washington than in Great Barrington? –

This past week, Pedro and Ed spoke with Adam Chait, founder and chief executive of Fiber Connect, to get some answers about how broadband infrastructure works locally.
If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems. Join us as we look at issues facing Great Barrington and discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple
We both serve on elected boards in Great Barrington, but we are not representing those boards or the town. 
This column is a companion to the WSBS (860 AM, 94.1 FM) radio show, It’s Not That Simple, on the air every other Friday at 9:05 a.m. Listen to the podcast here.
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In 2007, when Deval Patrick began his first term as governor of Massachusetts, the Internet was not new. Nevertheless, there were still many communities in rural western Massachusetts, including most of South County, that didn’t have access to it. This was at a time when doing business without the internet was already almost unthinkable.
Governor Patrick proposed, and the legislature created, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), which was supposed to bring the Internet to the unserved towns out here. MBI launched a plan to create a middle mile, not to wire each home and business but to bring the Internet into participating towns. The plan was to connect municipal buildings: town halls, police and fire stations, schools, and libraries. MBI leaders thought that if the state paid the cost of bringing fiber to a town, that would be sufficient incentive to get private providers to do the last mile and connect homes and businesses.
The plan was not particularly successful.
Private providers (Verizon, Comcast, Spectrum, Frontier) didn’t rush in to finish the last mile because the projected return on investment wasn’t attractive. Those companies are in business to make money and they decided that there was not enough money to be made given the low population density. Years later, in a new program, the state added more money as an incentive to complete the last mile.
Some towns got the state money to pay private companies to complete the infrastructure (by running cables to homes and businesses), but it was a slow process. Other towns paid for it themselves and now own the local (municipal) provider. Towns such as Great Barrington, that already had internet through cable TV and telephone companies, couldn’t get the new funding. As a result, those towns have older coaxial cable service, much slower than the towns that were more recently wired with newer technology: fiber optic cables.
That’s the short answer to why you can get faster internet service in Mt. Washington, with 165 full-time residents, than you can in Great Barrington. But is it the end of the story? Can anything be done to help Great Barrington step into the 21st century?
If you have Internet in Great Barrington, you probably have it through Spectrum, either as a stand-alone service or as part of your cable TV package. Many residential and business customers have complaints about service dropping or promised high speeds not being delivered. For some businesses, Internet delivered through coaxial cable is simply too slow.
We spoke with Adam Chait, founder and chief executive of Fiber Connect, a local start-up Internet service provider established in 2014, to get some answers about how broadband infrastructure works locally. In addition to being the chief executive, you can often find Chait at the top of a utility pole. It’s that kind of company.
It’s Not That Simple: Let’s start with this: How do you have the guts to compete with Spectrum? Conventional wisdom is that cable (and telephone) companies are monopolies because it is too expensive to duplicate the infrastructure and compete.
Adam Chait: We had a generous investor who said, “Now is the time, let’s get better broadband into the Berkshires.”
INTS: Did the state help?
AC: The Massachusetts Broadband Initiative was created and funded during the Obama administration to bring fiber into rural areas.The core infrastructure was built [by MBI], then there was an additional push to subsidize the buildout [of the last mile] in unserved areas. Some municipalities built their own, some turned to the big companies, and others looked to private providers [such as] Fiber Connect. We did Egremont and Monterey initially. We’re starting to do areas of New Marlborough and Great Barrington.
INTS: You mention the core infrastructure. Can you explain how this network works?
AC: In 2015 or so, the middle mile was constructed. At the time there wasn’t much available fiber for private use in rural areas so the state built a fiber infrastructure, connecting hospitals, schools, police stations and fire departments. They got at least one, if not multiple points of interconnect into 40 or so western Massachusetts towns. That made high speed available to private providers [such as] us. It allowed us to get in and say, “we can build that last mile to businesses and residences cost effectively.”
But there was only one network and there is risk in that. We’ve seen a few times where something as simple as a car accident can negatively affect a good chunk of Western Mass. Over the last decade, more and more fiber has been brought into the area for commercial use, which gives us resiliency. We have options if there is a problem in the network. When we first got started, the state network was the best option. We are now able to have alternatives and backups.
INTS: When the funding was available to reach underserved communities, Great Barrington wasn’t eligible. So let’s talk about another town. When you start, you begin at the fire station and string cables across poles?
AC: Yes. Let’s use Egremont as an example. There were anchor institutions, at Town Hall and the library, so there was fiber infrastructure from MBI. We purchased permission to tap into it and bring it to our head end and then we started stringing new fiber on existing poles.
INTS: Head end?
AC: The head end is where all the last mile fiber originates from. If you think of it as a bicycle wheel the Head End is the hub at the center of the wheel and the spokes are the fibers heading to all the homes in the town or area.
INTS: What does it take to string a cable on an existing pole? We hear it’s not that simple.
AC: The physical act of it is straightforward. But there’s a lot of prep work that happens [called “make-ready”]. The poles are owned by National Grid and Verizon. Communication wires are on the lower area of the pole. Then there’s a gap, and there’s the electrical on top. Verizon owns the lower, National Grid the upper. When a third party, us or even Spectrum, wants access to the pole, we have to apply to both National Grid and Verizon. That process gets complicated and it can get very expensive. Often either National Grid will have to raise equipment or Verizon will have to lower it in order to make room for us. Sometimes we need to replace a pole and that gets very costly. We have seen in the last few years that those costs have gone up dramatically. It’s one of the most time consuming and the most expensive parts of the process.
INTS: We’ve been trying to get fiber to Housatonic. Is it the “make ready” that’s delaying that project?
AC: Yes. The initial estimates that came back from the utilities were much higher than expected. Over the past several months we have been trying to negotiate with them. We are also looking at workarounds, [such as] putting conduit into the ground or adding poles, so we can run the cable parallel to the existing lines.
INTS: You offered to provide fiber to downtown Great Barrington at no cost to the town. To avoid poles you decided to go across rooftops.
AC: We’ve actually been able to go through basements, so nothing is exposed outside. In a few spots, the town has put conduit in while redoing streets. We can cross Railroad Street and Main Street underground. I try to encourage municipalities, when there are road projects, to put in conduits. If the town doesn’t do it, we will do it while roads are opened up.
INTS: What’s the status of the downtown project?
AC: There are a few buildings we still need to reach, but we are on both sides of Main Street and Railroad Street.
INTS: The work you have been doing has been to get fiber to buildings, as I said, at no cost to the town. You make your money back when people subscribe. How is that going?
AC: Sign-ups are always slower than one would hope. That’s our fault; we haven’t done a big marketing or sales push. But word of mouth is getting out there. The people who have signed up are happy with it.
INTS: How long until you get outside the downtown to any of the residential areas?
AC: Our initial push right now is to get from Monterey to Egremont. That would get us past Butternut, Belcher Square, through downtown GB, and then up Castle Hill to Simon’s Rock and into Egremont. That’s in the same make-ready negotiation process. From Castle Street, we can go down Bridge Street and East Street toward the fire station, and be in that residential area. The other push is to Housatonic [from the bottom of the hill where CHP and Dempsey’s Auto Sales is] to the Mill area, and then we can grow from there.
INTS: As the cable goes down the street, you can start serving the homes along the way?
AC: Yes. As soon as we get a strand of fiber up and an enclosure lit, we can start service. We don’t have to wait to finish the next mile.
INTS: Let’s talk about Wi-Fi downtown. Fiber Connect is working with Great Barrington town staff, downtown building owner Richard Stanley, and Southfield resident (and broadband enthusiast) Tim Newman, to bring a free, seamless wireless network to downtown. Fiber Connect will install and maintain the system. Equipment costs of approximately $20,000 will be raised from voluntary contributions from downtown building owners. How is that project going?
AC: We have the fiber infrastructure downtown already. What we need is the cooperation of the building owners so we can mount the wireless access points. We are in the process of connecting the first one in front of Barrington House. We are providing some of the dark fiber we have to run the Wi-Fi.
INTS: What is dark fiber? It sounds ominous.
AC: It’s fiber capacity we aren’t using. Each fiber cable has many strands. Downtown we have 96 or 144 and we are only using about 12, so we have a lot of extra capacity.
INTS: Will we have ugly antennas everywhere?
AC: They will be mounted on buildings about 10 feet up and they’re about the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper, about an inch thick. And they can be painted. We’ll get used to them and forget them pretty quickly.
INTS: Let’s get back to our initial question. If the small towns around us have fiber already, why doesn’t Great Barrington?
AC: Mt. Washington and Alford created their own municipal network. They chose to pay for it and they own it and contract out to private companies to operate it. New Marlborough and Sandisfield used state money and went with Charter [which means Charter owns the infrastructure]. Fiber Connect did Monterey and Egremont, and now parts of Great Barrington and New Marlborough, so we own that infrastructure.
INTS: So, again, why doesn’t GB have fiber?
AC: Great Barrington can use the MBI network if it chooses, but it wouldn’t be subsidized to build the last mile because it’s already served.
INTS: And unlike Mt. Washington, Great Barrington taxpayers didn’t pay to run fiber and compete with Spectrum. The good news is that Fiber Connect is doing it on their dime, so the buildout won’t cost taxpayers.
INTS would like to thank Tim Newman for providing technical advice for this column.
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Is there an issue you’d like us to discuss on the show? Do you have comments about this or previous shows? We invite your suggestions of topics that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.
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