Ninety miles west of Boston, the small town of South Hadley, Massachusetts, will soon have a new, municipal option for Internet access. In October, the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) Board of Commissioners unanimously approved plans to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout the town of 17,000. The network would bring high-speed fiber connectivity to South Hadley businesses and residents, who can currently choose between Comcast and Verizon for Internet access, while also enabling the municipal electric utility to implement smart grid technologies.
SHELD has been considering offering fiber optic Internet access to residents for several years. After hiring the current General Manager, Sean Fitzgerald, in 2017, management started to seriously examine the possibility of building a FTTH network. “What we’ve really been focused on this last year and a half,” Fitzgerald shared at the SHELD Board of Commissioners meeting, “is being diligent in reviewing the costs, the risks, the economic benefits for our customers and the South Hadley community at large.” In approving the network, Commissioner Vern Blodgett said, “SHELD is really ready financially and management-wise to take on a project like this.”
Smart Grid, Economic Development Benefits
One reason for SHELD’s interest in a fiber network is the potential to deploy Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI). While evaluating plans to provide Internet access, electric department management realized that current meters needed to be replaced, providing a perfect opportunity to upgrade to smart meter technology that could be integrated into the fiber network. This technology could help the utility better manage the electric grid load and respond to outages, ultimately saving SHELD money and improving customer experience. “It’s the future [of electric service],” Fitzgerald explained to the board. “If your power goes out, we will know maybe even before you do.”
A community fiber network would also help the town attract and retain businesses as well as improve quality of life for residents. At the board meeting, Chairman Gregory Dubreuil commented, “It will be of great benefit to the citizens of the community. It will . . . make [South Hadley] a better, more attractive place for economic development.”
Furthermore, electric department officials recognize the importance of having public ownership over broadband infrastructure. Fitzgerald told the commissioners that the fiber network “will provide a locally-controlled choice for Internet, which is very important.”
Drawing on Existing Resources
SHELD isn’t building a new network from scratch. South Hadley already has access to fiber infrastructure through projects like the middle-mile network MassBroadband 123 and the dark fiber network Five College Net, which the town has used to connect schools and public facilities. Fitzgerald explained to 22News that SHELD would be “leveraging the existing system” of fiber rings and a data hub to deploy the new FTTH network.
In many ways, providing fiber optic Internet access is the logical next step for municipal electric departments such as SHELD. This is especially true when it can be combined with smart grid technology. While presenting to the Board of Commissioners, Fitzgerald said the fiber network would “capitalize on 114 years of utility infrastructure and over 20 years of fiber optic operational experience . . . It will fully exploit the already existing investment.”
Fitzgerald isn’t a newcomer to the municipal fiber world. Before coming to SHELD, he was the Key Accounts and Customer Service Manager for Westfield Gas and Electric, which started building its own network, Whip City Fiber, in 2015 and now is assisting neighboring communities interested in developing publicly owned networks. Listen to Fitzgerald discuss Whip City Fiber on Community Broadband Bits episode 205.
Building and Financing the Network
Construction on the fiber network will start next year and could take up to five years to complete. The Town Reminder reports [PDF] that SHELD will create a website where residents can express their interest in subscribing to the new network. Neighborhoods, or “fiberhoods,” that show the most enthusiasm will be prioritized during the build out.
South Hadley’s electric department is currently debt free and is planning to use reserve funds instead of loans to finance network construction, according to the Town Reminder. At the board meeting, Fitzgerald said he even anticipates that the revenue from selling Internet access could help SHELD keep electric costs low, as in Chattanooga, where Electric Power Board customers benefit from lower electric rates because of the utility’s fiber network.
SHELD hasn’t released details on service plans yet, but they estimate that monthly costs will be approximately $70.
Image of South Hadley by Denimadept [CC BY-SA 3.0 us] from Wikimedia Commons.