Broadband Beckons for Becket in the Berkshires

What Becket Town Administrator William Caldwell called “one of the most anticipated news [events]” in town was announced at the North Becket Village fire station weeks before Christmas.

But town officials weren’t there to roll out a shiny new ladder truck or to bring their kids to meet Santa. They were there to bring glad tidings of the launch of construction for Becket Broadband, a municipal Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) network that will usher high-speed Internet connectivity into this small Massachusetts hill town.

Since the town received a $3 million state grant to fund the initial work to build the network nearly four years ago, Sertex construction crews have been working and will continue through the winter to string fiber cables on utility poles along the town’s approximately 100 miles of roads with the build-out expected to be complete in 2022.

The project manager for the network’s construction is Westfield Gas & Electric, the city of Westfield’s gas and electric utility which received $10.2 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) auction to expand fiber networks in 20 nearby communities in western Massachusetts, including Becket.

The work will be done in phases, as network planners have created a map of the town carved up into 10 service areas, each of which will be connected as drops are installed to connect individual homes in those service areas. The order which service areas will be connected was determined by the town’s Select Board using three factors: the parts of town that had the lowest proportion of residents with access to the Internet; the areas where residents expressed the most interest in the service, which was determined through a 2019 survey; and the technical requirements of the work to install fiber connections in each service area.

Becket belongs to a consortium of Massachusetts towns who have joined WiredWest, a regional non-profit cooperative established in 2010 to build high-speed broadband networks in the unserved and underserved communities in the Berkshires.

With Town Meeting voter approval, there are now 27 member towns, which includes Becket – a town with a little more than 1,700 residents situated just off the Mass Turnpike, seven miles east of the New York border. Long known as a great place to go fishing for bass and trout in its many picturesque streams and lakes, Becket now hopes to reel in residents to sign up for service while the network is being built.

Fishing for Fiber Financing 

Currently, Becket residents have five ISP’s to choose from: Verizon DSL, Comcast Xfinity, Charter Spectrum, HughesNet and Viasat. Verizon is available to 88 percent of town residents but only offer speeds of 15 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $70 a month. Xfinity offers speeds of up to 1,200 Mbps but only covers 2.5% of the town. Spectrum has a 940 Mbps offering for $50 per month but is only available to 1.6% of town residents. The satellite-based ISPs, HughesNet and Viasat, of course, covers the entire town but HughesNet’s top speed is 25 Mbps for $50 per month, while Viasat costs $90 a month for a 35 Mbps connection.

However, the reality for most Becket residents is one option: the antiquated Verizon DSL network, according to Jeff Piemont, a volunteer member of the town’s ad hoc committee for Becket Broadband.

“It’s pretty bad,” Piemont said. “I mean, we’re talking about 3 Megabits down[load] and 256 [Kilobits per second] up[load]. It’s like something out of 1992. It’s very limited.”

Piemont, an attorney, said that when he first bought his home in Becket, he was working remotely and still had a home in New Jersey. The Internet connection he and his wife had in Becket though was so bad that if he needed to use the Internet for work he had to drive to their home in New Jersey. 

They tried one of the satellite-based ISPs in Becket but “the connection didn’t really work because of the latency with satellite.”  

During the 2015 annual Town Meeting, he made the case for why voters should approve a $3.8 million bond issuance to fund the rest of the fiber network build-out. “I said then ‘You can’t do effective business without good Internet infrastructure. And without twenty-first century broadband infrastructure our real estate market would suffer because if there’s a choice between a place with good broadband or not, most buyers are going to choose a place with good broadband.’”

Town Meetings voters approved the measure but the debt still needed to pass at the annual town election. Ultimately, the majority of voters came to see that not only is broadband “essential infrastructure,” it also became apparent that “if no one was going to bring us the last mile, we would have to do it ourselves,” Piemont recalled. 

The ballot question on the debt financing passed with 73% voter approval.

Piemont’s sense of the impact it would have on the local real estate market appears to have been borne out. “Now that we are building a broadband network, I’m seeing new home construction,” he said.

Pulling in the Net

Residents now have the opportunity to sign-up for the service during the construction period. Those who do so will be eligible for a subsidy program being offered by the Town of Becket to cover all or a portion of the cost of installing a fiber connection to their home. After the subsidy period ends, however, households who want the service will not be eligible for the subsidy and will have to pay the full cost to install a fiber connection unless the town extends further subsidies. Planners are hoping to net 60-70% of the local market.

WiredWest has teamed up with Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric, to be the Internet Service Provider (ISP). 

The residential rates for service will be $84 a month for gigabit speed and $68 per month for a 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) connection. The gigabit business rates fall into three tiers: The “Small Business Internet” service for $109 per month; the “Medium Business Internet” rate of $159 per month; and the “Large Business Internet” rate of $259 monthly.

If the construction schedule stays on course, the town’s manager of Becket’s Municipal Light Plant Robert Gross told The Berkshire Eagle, “we’re hoping that the first homes will be connected in the early spring.”