Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, provides traditional cable TV service, Internet access, and phone service to the community through its utility, Shrewsbury Electric & Cable Operations (SELCO). As the utilities board consults with their subscribers and looks forward, they've come to the conclusion that it's time to invest in fiber optic upgrades to improve operations and remain competitive.
From 1907 to 1983
The community launched SELCO in 1907 as a "Street Lighting Committee" which, after negotiations with a local electric company, led to a local election. The local company had offered to supply power to the community if they would build their own "plant" — poles, wires, and lines. Both first and second town votes in support of the measure and the authorization to borrow $16,000 for construction of the plant led to what would become SELCO.
While community leaders first considered the possibility of developing a publicly owned cable television network in the mid 1960s, significant steps toward implementing the plan didn't happen until 1982. By then, the town had already been operating an electric utility for 75 years, had conducted a feasibility study, and knew they wanted to pursue the cable TV project. According to SELCO History: The First Hundred Years [PDF], "confusion and disarm of the cable industry at the time" made community leaders delay their decision to move forward in 1970. The project was shelved until 1982 when the Board of Selectmen created Shrewsbury Community Cablevision (SCC) with strong support from people in the community.
The community faced interference from incumbent cable providers, which required a court challenge. Eventually, the town received a CATV license and activated their first subscriber on September 9, 1983. They served 5,600 households by the end of 1984.
By 1999, SELCO was offering Internet access to subscribers. At the time, the community invested $6.3 million into the system in order to offer their service dubbed "TownISP." In 2006, SELCO started offering voice services through a partnership with Sprint/Nextel Communications. The move proved to be popular among residents and businesses who wanted to take advantage of the ability to bundle services.
Fiber for the Future
At the February 11th Board of Selectmen meeting, general manager of SELCO Michael Hale and Jackie Pratt, marketing and customer care manager, presented details on projects that the utility has planned for the future.
In order to develop a strategy based on the needs of subscribers, the utility has conducted surveys to determine how the community rate electric, video, voice, and Internet access service. While respondents rated satisfaction for all services high — between 75% and 94.2% — they also considered local control a priority: 83 percent supported the policy.
The Community Advocate reported that a majority of respondents expressed interest in fiber optic connectivity and are willing to put their money into fast, affordable, reliable Internet access :
Interestingly, 51 percent would also be willing to spend $5 to $10 more per month to have Fiber-to- the-Home (FTTH) Internet service and that 41.4 percent thought broadband investment should be prioritized.
The findings comport with last October’s decision by the SELCO Commission to move toward a FTTH upgrade in order to improve services and remain competitive. Hale said that SELCO will be seeking the authority to borrow $12 to $15 million for capital costs in May 2020 when Shrewsbury holds their Annual Town Meeting. The Board estimate the project will cost approximately $30 million.
Town Manager Kevin Mizikar:
“I think this is a huge competitive advantage to continue to leverage this unique relationship in having SELCO being a municipal utility and offering these services to our residents even beyond electricity.”
Image of Shrewsbury Town Hall by Pvmoutside / CC BY-SA