PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Reliable high-speed broadband is critical to the county's economic competitiveness in the coming years.
That's the point the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is stressing in an eight-page letter to Gov. Charlie Baker and more than 15 state and local officials detailing the challenges and goals facing communities in this rural area.
"As a region that has struggled economically for forty-five years, and is increasingly reliant on entrepreneurs and sole-proprietors, who are often home-based and can be located anywhere, having full, future proof broadband available across the region is critical to our economic rebuilding and sustainability," the letter states.
The letter was developed by BRPC's Regional Issues Committee with guidance from Lee delegate Peter Bluhm and approved on Thursday night with the caveat the commission's points of action would be put front and center.
"I think there's really good stuff in here, there's the suggestion to basically establish a broadband speed, there's suggestions on the state getting more involved and taking certain actions, suggestions on pole attachments, there's a lot of stuff I think the state could do," said Rene Wood, Sheffield's representative. "I'm concerned it will be buried."
She suggested putting three to five bullet fronts first as an action list and to make sure they're seen by the recipients. It was decided to hand off the task to Executive Director Nathaniel Karns to ensure the letter was sent out as soon as possible. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute is preparing a request for proposals for private sector solutions for "last mile" connections (its director Peter Larkin is on the list) and lawmakers will be preparing legislation for submission in January for coming session.
"I think as quickly as this letter can go out it should, or everyone is going to be behind the 8-ball," said Ken Basler of Monterey. "This letter feeds right into the need for more energy and innovation."
The statement reviews the conditions of broadband historically in the county and calls for a state standard in broadband speeds, recognition of the lack of equity in quality and costs through current providers, the challenges for communities in developing municipal infrastructures, and a lack of regulation.
Many consumers are reliant on DSL or wireless, and while some of the "most very rural towns" are forging a path forward through MBI's program, "the economic hearts of the region, such as Pittsfield, North Adams and Great Barrington, will be left behind, being served only with older cable TV-based systems."
To "future proof" fiber broadband infrastructure, the commission is recommending fiber-to-the-home to overcome the region's topographical limitations and obsolete copper DSL and dial-up.
BRPC is recommending the state set a standard speed higher than the Federal Communications Commission's 25 Mbps download, a speed that no wireless service in the county currently meets, to prompt innovation and investment. Fiber by contrast can be had at 2 gigabits per second with a next generation potential of 10, or 400 times the current standard.
"The issue with obtaining FTTH services through major providers such as Verizon, Comcast or Charter is not one of 'can they?' but 'will they?'" the letter states. "It is our firm belief that for most of the entire Commonwealth, and of all of Berkshire County, the answer is 'They will not.'"
With little regulation, competition has been the main factor for improving service and lowering costs, but for rural areas, there's rarely more than one option and so no competition.
The commission "applauds" the current efforts to date by Baker's administration in promoting broadband but calls for more investment on "a grand scale" to prevent Berkshire County, and the state as a whole, from being left behind in telecommunications.
"If progress is made on this, we'll get a phone call at some point to come sit down," said Karns. If not, the commission would reach out to the county's legislative delegation. "That's part of the strategy — to get them thinking about it."
The commission also signed off an a new three-year agreement with the towns represented by the Rest of the River Committee. BRPC is the fiduciary agent and the voice of the towns, through the committee, on elements related to the 13-year cleanup of the Housatonic between Pittsfield and the Connecticut border.
The committee was created with the expectation "GE would be willing to have some conversations with the committee about the economic impacts ... because of the length of the cleanup," said Karns.
That, however, has not occurred and the company appears to be "willing to fight to the death" to have nearly 1 million cubic feet in sludge from the cleanup of the polychlorinated biphenyls in the river retained in the county. In addition, there is a push to have GE held responsible "in perpetuity" for any further contamination found. There is a concern that other actions near and in the river, such as bridge repairs, may release PCBs, a toxic substance GE used in its manufacturing process.
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