Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Tim Haas on broadband services in western Massachussetts. Listen to this episode here.
Tim Haas: The mantra of the Municipal Light Plant is to improve the quality of life for the community they serve. That's really the whole point.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
This week, Chris visits Holyoke, Massachusetts, and talks with Tim Haas. Tim is a Senior Network Engineer from Holyoke Gas & Electric. HG&E has provided telecommunications services through its fiber network for over 15 years. The network began in 1997, saving public dollars, and encouraging economic development ever since. Holyoke's sense of purpose comes from heart of the community. Shareholders are citizens. Profits are measured by how the network improves the quality of life. The team that runs the network is directly accountable to the people and businesses of Holyoke. Their "mantra," as Tim described it, guides the utility in the decision-making process. Holyoke remains one of the communities others try to emulate. Here are Tim and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today I'm speaking with Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas, from Holyoke Gas & Electric. Welcome to the show, Tim.
Tim Haas: Thank you very much, Chris.
Chris: So, I just met you. We had lunch together with a group of other folks up there in Western Mass., when I was coming through the region, which, I was very glad to get to know people, see you face-to-face. Maybe you can start by describing that area of the country for our guests.
Tim: Sure. We're located in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It's in the western part of Massachusetts. It's a reasonably rural area, made up of four counties. Holyoke is located 90 miles east -- I'm sorry, west -- of Boston.
Chris: It's a lot drier there.
Tim: Yeah. And about 30 minutes north of Hartford, Connecticut. We're about 8 miles north of Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball. And Holyoke itself is an old industrial city that came about in the mid 1800s. It was, I believe, the second planned industrial city in the United States, where they harnessed hydroelectric power off of the Connecticut River and built an industrial paper manufacturing town.
Chris: And so if you fast-forward a little ways, you have a municipal gas & electric -- in the parlance of Massachusetts, a "municipal light plant." And you eventually decided that it would make sense to get into the telecommunications investments. Can you tell us a little bit about when that happened and what the reasons were?
Tim: Sure. Holyoke Gas & Electric itself was founded in 1902 as a municipal light plant, which is an interesting way that the municipality separates the functions of town government and delivering services. So the municipal light plant enables the municipality to go into business. And Holyoke Gas & Electric was founded by the city in 1902, for the purpose of delivering gas lamp service to residences, and then ultimately, over time, converted to electric light service. In 2002, we acquired the assets of Holyoke Water Power / Northeast Utilities, and became a hydroelectric operator. And just previous to that, about 1997 or so, is when we laid our first fiber optic cable. And that was born out of the electric department's foresight and desire to test this new technology. And the real -- the gentleman who originated that is the electric superintendent here at Holyoke Gas & Electric. His name is Brian Beauregard. And so, when they did that, they said, well, maybe we can hook up city buildings. And they decided that they were going to install a large-capacity singlemode fiber optic ring throughout the city limits, and throughout all the substations. And that's really where it was born. It was, you know, trying to hook up, and do local networking, and get to some greater capacity. And from there, the actual telecom division was born. And we decided that it may be beneficial to the city to start delivering services to businesses and other institutions within town, considering that we had all of this fiber optic infrastructure to work with, and we actually had a lit network. That's really how it got started, was through the need of the utility, and the foresight of the folks running the electric division.
Chris: I'm always interested in how these things develop. We've seen a number of cases where the municipal light plant or public utility connects substations. And then it realizes, oh, we could connect the schools. And then businesses find out about these incredibly fast connections. And then they start encouraging that they should be connected as well. How was it in Holyoke? Was it something that, like, elected leaders saw potential? Or was it local businesses that came to city hall and said this is what we should do?
Tim: I think it was a combination of the two. A lot of municipalities struggle with the lack of quality service or high-speed service. And at the time, this was really -- if you rewind and go back to 1998 -- that's 15 years ago -- fiber optic wasn't really even in our daily language. Right?
Chris: You know, I was -- I remember when I was in college at the time, undergrad, and T1s were -- man, they were smokin'.
Tim: Right. And they're still around. But it was really, I think, the businesses were very open. You know, if we talk about healthcare, and higher education, and public education, and municipal requirements, and public safety requirements, all of these things just kind of melded together and it was -- the Gas & Electric was the entity that could make this happen, and make this work. And they did.
Chris: And so, how many businesses do you serve? Is it the case that anyone can take service ...
Chris: ... or is it those who are located close by?
Tim: No, we're -- Again, the network itself throughout the city limits of Holyoke is pervasive. So we can deliver fiber anywhere. We've got a dozen different points of presence here in the town alone. We've also got an arrangement with the city of Chicopee, who laid their dark fiber plant at about the same time. But they really didn't do a lot with it, other than, maybe, some dark fiber connections between the buildings. And so, it was about 2005, I believe, HG&E and Chicopee Electric Light got together and we formed a partnership where we would extend our services to businesses in their town, and, basically, they lease the dark fiber to us, for a fee, and they bring them back to a POP. We put in a switch in their main substation, and we deliver services to businesses in Chicopee.
Chris: Do you also deliver services in Southampton or any other places?
Tim: No, not at this time. We do have -- we did one thing where we have a, currently, a 10-gigabit ring, that's a backhaul ring between Springfield and Holyoke. And we've got our two main points of presence in Springfield, where we take our Internet feeds from. And what we did in downtown Springfield is, there's several high-rises and, three of which, we saw a market need at the time -- it was like 2003 -- we decided that we would fiber those high-rises up, from basement to roof. And we've got a few dozen customers through those buildings. And that fiber gets tied back to our -- one of our main points of presence in Springfield. That's a basement of one of the towers. So, that has worked out well, and ....
Chris: You haven't expanded in terms of your own infrastructure. But when I met you, it was with a group of people from, mostly, Leverett, and one person from Princeton -- two towns that are looking at building their own networks. And ...
Chris: ... and I saw that you were there, providing advice, and giving them -- helping them to work through their problems. Can you tell me a little bit about how HG&E is helping neighbors to look at what I would call locally-self-reliant solutions?
Tim: The mantra of the Municipal Light Plant is to improve the quality of life for the community they serve. That's really the whole point. These other towns have, through the grapevine or whatever, have heard about what we've been doing, and they're new to the fiber optic networking, and all the intricacies that go along with delivering a telecommunications service. So, in Leverett's case, they approached HG&E and asked if we would help them in their endeavor to build a fiber-to-the-home. And we thought it was a great opportunity to help another community. And they really had all their ducks in a row and how they wanted to do it. So they requested, through what is called in Massachusetts an intergovernmental agreement, where HG&E agreed to become Leverett's owner's project manager, throughout the life of the project. So we would more or less be their eyes on the street and make sure that the project was going accordingly. Obviously, mitigate any issues that arise with projects of this size. But, really, take, you know -- Leverett take advantage of HG&E's 15-year experience in fiber optic networking. And what it takes to build it, and what it takes to own it, and what it takes to run it. So, we feel privileged to be in a position to help another town like Leverett. And, you know, HG&E is really proud of our ability to help these folks.
Chris: An assumption that we often make is that with enough time you can really lower the cost of an eventual deployment of fiber-to-the-home. And I'm just sort of curious if you see, in the future, an inevitability of HG&E doing a fiber-to-the-home within Holyoke, and whether or not you can drop the costs by planning for it over a series of many years?
Tim: That's something that we have looked at for a long time here, Chris. We've looked extensively at it for the past ten years, three different times -- probably every three years -- in depth. And what the cost structure would be. And it's one of those things where if we're going to deliver a service like that, to residences, it's -- well, we really have to deliver it to everyone. And we've struggled with the return on investment of delivering fiber-to-the-home, and how we manage those services being delivered to the customer. 'cause we recognize where our strengths are. We recognize that we're good at building fiber plant, we're good at running networks, we're good at managing those things. But we're probably not large enough to justify building our own IPTV head end, for example.
Chris: Right. That's usually the trickiest part, right?
Tim: It is. And that whole, as we know, is completely changing, with the "over-the-top" wave that we're seeing. Right? So, you know, again, those models kind of change, and if you look at -- just to digress back to Leverett, they opted not to do TV at all. It's straight high-speed broadband, and telephone service. And their thought process is, there are enough options out there, and the industry is changing so fast, that to make an investment into something like IPTV just doesn't seem to fit into the whole ROI model of building your own network and maintaining it over the long term.
Tim: Especially for the smaller folks. And HG&E is in that similar position. So we have a tough struggle because we can't simply just go out and building something without a clear return on investment, 'cause we have to answer to our ratepayers. And those are the folks that we serve. So we have to be very cognizant of where our capital money goes, and where our operational expenses are focused on. And we've been very successful in the business environment. We have hundreds of connections on our fiber network. Everything is point-to-point. And so we have tremendous amounts of flexibility between the customer prem and our points of presence locations from -- You know, we started out with 10-meg Ethernet. Now, our lowest link speed is 100 meg. And, of course, we limit those. But we're delivering gigabit connections, we have a bunch of those there. And we've got plans in place to put a multi-ten-gig ring in, and be able to offer 10-gig access loops. And our belief is, you know, within the capital and operational confines, that the network really should be pervasive. And that's how we view it, from our utility operations, from city municipal -- again, from public safety, all the way down to our customers, it should be -- people shouldn't have to think about the network. And if they're built and constructed correctly, it's a matter of, well, not how much can I use but how much do I need, and do I really care?
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. And, you know, it's -- I'm always interested in the difference between geographies, too. Because, some places, it may just be more practical than in others, because of whether you're going above ground, underground, whatever. But is there anything else that we should know about Holyoke, that you want to brag about before we end this interview?
Tim: I think probably the one thing, Chris, is, we couldn't do any of this without our staff. And the fact, again, going back to this whole MLP environment, customer service is number one for us. And one of the things that really makes us successful is a talented team of technicians, engineers, right on through. You know, our telecom division is 15 folks strong. Right from the Operations Manager, Kirk Jonah, down through sales, operations, engineering, administration, all of that. It's all about serving the customer locally. We pride ourselves on a 15-minute turnaround time. We pride ourselves on knowing what's going on with our network at all times, day or night. And we pride ourselves on building and keeping a reputation as the best in the area.
Chris: That reminds me of a conversation I was just having yesterday, in which we were talking about what the different motivations are, and -- for the municipal networks and -- the friendliness of staff, the great customer service -- that's what typically sets them apart.
Tim: Absolutely. You know, we don't hesitate to send a technician or an engineer to the customer site. That's a major difference in most carriers. We do not hesitate. If there's any question, we have someone on-site.
Chris: Well, thank you for coming on and telling us about Holyoke and how -- You know, we've been excited watching the whole region, because Western Mass. seems like it's figuring out, faster than many other regions of the country, just how important these networks are. And the role that local governments and their brethren can play in terms of spurring the investments.
Tim: With all this activity that you're seeing around, I don't think it would be possible without Mass. Broadband Institute and the federal stimulus that built this 1300 route-mile middle-mile network throughout Western Mass. That has really been the spark. I've never seen this kind of activity in Western Mass. in my entire career. It's really exciting.
Chris: Thank you for coming on.
Tim: Thanks a lot, Chris.
Lisa: Tim wanted to make sure we mentioned Jim Lavelle, manager of HG&E. Tim says that without Jim, all HG&E's strides would not be possible.
For more on the network, visit hged.com, and follow the telecommunications link from the products-and-services menu. Thank you again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast. We want your ideas for the show, so feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com . And you can also follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on September 24th, 2013. Thank you again to the group Break the Bans for their song, "Escape," licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day.