After a citizen effort in Holyoke, Massachusetts, community leaders will let voters decide this fall on the question of analyzing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) possibilities.
At the April 4th city council meeting, community leaders passed a recommendation that a nonbinding public opinion advisory question be put on the ballot in November:
Should the Holyoke Gas and Electric conduct a feasibility study on a gradual roll out of fiber optic internet for residents of the City to purchase, and the findings be presented at a City Council meeting by April 2022 or sooner?
There was one Councilor absent and one nonparticipating member of the Council; the measure passed 7 - 4.
First Stop in Committee
The decision to bring the question to voters came after the city’s Charter and Rules Committee reviewed a citizens’ petition in mid-March. A group of citizen gathered signatures for the petition to ask Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) to conduct a feasibility for an incremental deployment for residential premises in Holyoke. HG&E currently offers fiber connectivity to commercial subscribers.
Resident Laura Clampitt appeared at the committee meeting to speak in favor of the measure. She and another local resident, Ken Lefbvre, have lead efforts encouraging city leaders to move toward a feasibility study. Locals have shared information via a Facebook page to keep the public up-to-date on the proposal:
“These residents would love to purchase those services as well,” Clampitt said. “We would like to encourage HG&E to explore that option and present those findings in a public manner."
“We’ve seen the figures for the full rollout, $20 million or so. We understand that’s not feasible at this time,” Clampitt said. “We would appreciate HG&E looking into doing a partial rollout.”
Other residents spoke in support of moving the proposal forward and HG&E’s General Manager, James H. Lavelle also commented. He noted that the network is “entirely self-supporting” at this time and that he estimates a residential build out would cost approximately $30 million.
He said the utility completed a five-year capital investment in upgrading hydroelectric generating plants and substation infrastructure, which totaled $75 million.
"There’s no room for resources to do the buildout as was referenced,” Lavelle said. “We have been, for the last several months, looking at a gradual build to see if that would be viable. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Lavalle suggested that the utility already surveys customers, but one at-large Councilor described the surveys, conducted via home phone numbers, as “piecemeal.”
“The petitioners are trying to help you to get a better or more holistic read of public support and sentiment the fiber network,” [At-large Councilor] Lisi told Lavelle.
Once the issue passed through the committee to the full council, city leaders were tentative about the language and asked legal staff to review it. After the Law Department reviewed the language and recommended changes, the Holyoke City Council took up the issue again at their April 2nd meeting.
There was another motion to table the question again, but that motion failed and the full council voted to put the issue on the November ballot.
Holyoke Connecting Local Businesses but Residents Want More
Back in 2013, Christopher interviewed HG&E’s Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, who talked about the utility’s philosophy of helping out neighboring communities who needed better options. You can hear that discussion in episode 65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
HG&E deployed their network with an incremental approach, which has helped them on the road to a self-sustaining system. This slow and deliberate expansion technique, along with the willingness to work with nearby towns seeking better connectivity, have lead to steady growth. A 2015 report from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center tells their story. We also were able to talk with one of the report’s authors, David Talbot for episode 162 of the podcast.
For about three and a half years, the Holyoke Fiber Optic group has worked to educate the community’s 40,000 residents and drum up support for a possible municipal FTTH deployment. Comcast serves homes in the community, but residents who want faster, more reliable connections feel frustrated that that don’t have access to the same level of service as local businesses from their municipal electric utility.
In the past, officials from the utility have mentioned that they’ve looked into FTTH and asked for residents' opinions, but the utility has never engaged in a citywide survey. Members of Holyoke Fiber Optic group hope that a ballot measure will put to rest any uncertainty about the community’s desire for residential municipal FTTH service.
Update: Ken and Laura were recently interviewed about the ballot initiative on Holyoke's Radioplasma. Listen here or check out Radioplasma for more: