PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is warning towns not to settle for internet which may not be fast enough in a few years.
The relaunching of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute comes with changes to the program which allows towns to craft individual plans for expanding broadband into unserved areas. That includes grants for cable companies to expand, such as Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale opted to do, or expansion of a wireless system — like Middlefield is piloting — or running fiber cables to the homes like Mount Washington.
BRPC's Regional Issues Subcommittee believes that nothing less than fiber optic wiring to homes will be sufficient in the coming years and is warning for a careful consideration before utilizing the money MBI is offering. Towns are being asked to sign off that the grant for whichever project is chosen fulfills MBI's funding for the town.
"I can easily envision that if they don't think through that carefully, they may be in the position of making a decision now that in four or five years from now they will still be paying for and finding it is something they regret," Executive Director Nathaniel Karns said. "We don't have any evidence that says anything buy fiber is going to meet those future needs."
In Lanesborough, West Stockbridge, and Hinsdale, MBI released a grant to Charter Communications for $1.6 million to expand throughout those towns. The towns had previously been only partly served by cable. Karns, a Lanesborough resident, said that expansion is going from very poor service to "slightly better" service.
"It is going from one monopoly with crummy service to one with slightly better service," Karns said.
Karns said the expansion will lower the cost immediately. But, he fears in a handful of years, the service won't be up to the standards envisioned by the MBI program when it was first enacted. He said every town that has tried using wireless or satellite for internet has been a failure.
"My impression around the region is that, with rare exceptions, folks like the select boards and our legislators are not often aware of the deficiencies and the problems we will be facing," Karns said.
After waiting so long for internet, underserved towns may be quick to pull the trigger to get any high-speed service. In some cases when companies like Verizon or Comcast has a monopoly, Karn's found instances when the upload capacities were well below advertised and there is very little room to work with the towns to provide better service — and Karns presented a case made by the towns of Hardwick and Montague made to the Department of Telecommunications and Cable echoing those sentiments about Comcast.
"I think it is a stark reminder of why we might be so concerned about having monopoly position by the cable companies," Karns said.
In Williamstown, Town Planner Andrew Groff said there has been momentum to expand fiber optic wire to the homes. But, the upfront cost poses a boundary. At the same time, he sees copper wire expansion as having less return on investment because it will deteriorate quickly.
"There is only so much we can do. North Adams has fiscal challenges, we have infrastructure concerns that are slightly more pressing," Groff said.
Groff also expressed concern with each town crafting its own plan, which is a major change of the MBI model. He says towns working together through collaboratives would find a much better long-term solution.
"If you don't all work together on it, the solution is not going to present itself," Groff said.
BRPC isn't just going to criticize the plan but is willing to take part in keeping those towns together to find a long-term solution. The organization receives state funding for District Local Technical Assistance projects and Karns said there could be some money available to help towns through that — provided the governor doesn't cut the program with another round of so-called 9C cuts this year. He also added the organization can help seek out funding from major employers and non-profits, who have a stake in the internet game, to help.
"I think there is a great deal of urgency to it," said Pittsfield representative Sheila Irvin. "My concern is as soon they finish with these unserved, nobody else is going to have a chance."
Irvin said when it comes to cable companies, they are "calling all of the shots."
"That's a very limited vision that they've got and when they are done, they're done and we're stuck," she said. "We do need to involve businesses, the bigger businesses."
BRPC is now sending out letter outlining their concerns to various stakeholders — towns that are unserved with basic information about the different technologies, the three towns who already agreed with the Charter welcoming them to the 21st century while still cautioning them that in a few years there may be speed issues, all of the other towns which have cable about the upgrades the companies are performing, and the local Chamber of Commerce's to get businesses on board.
"I still don't get the sense that anyone is really looking at what is going to be needed in five years," Karns said. "We are going from an awful situation to a slightly better situation."
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