In the Berkshire Mountains of northwestern Massachusetts, along the border with Vermont, sits the sleepy town of Colrain. Set in a region known for its vibrant music, arts, and recreation-based tourism, Colrain has a population of 1,606 according to the 2020 census and a footprint of 43.4 square miles that includes two state forests.
Until 2021, going online was tough in Colrain. Residents and businesses were either underserved — struggling with download speeds of 10 to 15 Mbps — or unserved with no internet connection at all. For households that required connectivity, achingly-slow DSL service was available through Verizon. Some in the community subscribed to satellite service, and others tried to use cellular data to connect. Every day was a struggle for local businesses and people working remotely from home. (Well, there really weren’t any residents who could work from home with speeds so slow. Many commuted long distances to jobs near larger cities or relocated to metropolitan areas.)
But today, Colrain Broadband is the envy of neighboring towns. Businesses are thriving, and residents are thrilled with the town’s new lightning-fast gigabit fiber broadband network, constructed by Sertex Broadband Solutions while working on behalf of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric.
The Colrain fiber project started in 2015 when residents approved a bond to bring gigabit Internet — up to 1,000 megabits per second — into the community through a locally owned and operated municipal broadband network. With a budget of $3.7 million ($2.4 million from a town bond authorization and $1.31 million from a Massachusetts Broadband Institute grant), the broadband network covered 82 miles of roadways and ultimately connected 899 households and business locations. Built over 12 months once make ready was completed, the network now connects 99.8% of Colrain. Today, 70.1% of residents have subscribed to the network, matching the hoped-for take rate.
In the words of Mike Slowinski, town selectman and municipal light plant manager, “Broadband has been transformative, revolutionary for our town. Older residents can attend telehealth appointments and access critical services like Lifeline that keep them safe in their homes. Kids can learn remotely if needed and complete homework, which was a huge challenge during 2020. Our last remaining cotton mill, Barnhardt Manufacturing, is our largest employer and our largest broadband customer. They have more than 20 portals feeding their facility. With fiber broadband the mill is much more efficient in operations, orders, scheduling, and shipping.”
In late summer 2021, Pine Hill Orchards faced a deadline to get broadband up and running. Owner Brady McElaney explained that a large percentage of the orchard’s earnings come during fall apple season, which starts in earnest Labor Day weekend. McElaney and her partners watched patiently as Sertex trucks moved closer to their property in June and July. But construction wasn’t happening fast enough to meet the orchard’s Labor Day deadline. So McElaney reached out to Slowinski and his team, asking if work could be expedited in their area.
“With the existing Verizon service, we couldn’t process credit card or EBT card payments while our customers were here,” explained McElaney. “We’d trust transactions were legitimate and process the cards after hours. But sometimes, the cards were no good, and we’d lose money. It was extremely frustrating.”
Slowinski reached out to Sertex and shared Pine Hill Orchard’s deadline. Understanding the plight of the seasonal business, the entire Colrain broadband team – and especially Sertex -- stepped up efforts to get fiber installed and operating at the orchard by Labor Day. “What an unbelievable difference,” continued McElaney.
“Fiber modernized how we do business. We could process transactions instantly from anywhere on the property, even far away from the farm buildings and the store. We can now update our website and upload photos and live-stream videos on social media without a struggle. Everything internet-related is just so easy now for the business. Personally, I live on the farm with my 18 and 11-year-old kids. We can all be online at the same time, and the connections work without a glitch. They can attend school, game and watch videos while we stream content or focus on work.”
Driven to Do Hard Work
Working in rugged Colrain through every season for two years wasn’t easy. But Sertex teams found ways to meet and beat all the challenges they encountered.
- Mountainous terrain and extreme winter weather conditions meant difficult installations. Crews installed chains on truck tires to help them negotiate hazardous mountain roads.
- Many areas in town offered no cell service, so communication was impossible between crews. Sertex applied for and acquired an FCC license and invested in two-way radios to allow teams to communicate when working in cellular dead zones. If needed, they would also visit each other to relay vital information.
- Many streams and rivers were crossed during construction, and Sertex crews became experts. The final crossing of the Green River – the widest river crossing required – went seamlessly. Metal strand was thrown across the river from one utility pole to another. Crews then attached the fiber cable to the strand on rollers and sent it carefully across the river, connecting fiber on both sides.
- The summer of 2021 was extremely wet. July alone had 18 days of rain, often torrential. It was impossible to work in the downpours with flooding and mudslides on the steep hillsides and gravel roadways. This unprecedented rain cost the broadband project most of July and pushed the completion date back. Sertex crews showed up every day and tried to work. Once the weather cleared, they pushed even harder to get their work completed, minimizing delays.
Ultimately the Colrain project was completed in the Fall of 2021.
Today, many people are buying homes in Colrain, returning to this beautiful rural area instead of living in expensive, congested areas around cities. And the availability of remote work has meant that the exodus of younger generations has reversed. “Our community is poised for growth,” finished Slowinski. “We see being way out in the country as a competitive advantage now. People want to work here, and their customers want to visit them in this beautiful region of New England.”