WGBH asks if municipal broadband is an answer to Worcester's Internet challenges. Looks at two other Massachusetts networks, Chicopee and Shrewsbury, that have different muni broadband approaches.
This week on the podcast Christopher talks with IT Manager John Leary and Customer Experience, Marketing, & Communications Manager Lisa Stowe from Westfield Gas & Electric, the municipal utility for the city of 40,000 in the southwestern quadrant of the Massachusetts. The topic of the day is Westfield's municipally owned fiber arm — Whip City Fiber — which is doing some wonderful things as it enters its next phase of life.
First, John and Lisa share their thoughts on the history of the network and what they see as key characteristics of its early success: Whip City embraced a model of incremental buildout in its early years, managing expectations and pursuing careful growth during its $2 million pilot project before transitioning, thanks to a $15 million municipal bond, to expanding so that today the network covers 70% of the city.
The group then digs into Whip City Fiber’s next phase of life: bringing municipally owned gigabit Internet to twenty Western Massachussetts Hill Towns over the next few years, including (but not limited to) Alford, Ashfield, Chesterfield, Leyden, New Ashford, New Salem, Otis, Plainfield, Rowe, Washington, Wendell, and Windsor. With Whip City’s help now and eventual role as Internet Service Provider (ISP) and network operator, nine are already online, with the rest to follow by the end of next year.
The group ends by talking about the future and getting to 100% coverage in Westfield, and the utility’s commitment to closing the digital divide.
This show is 35 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
Read the trancript for this episode....Read more
Last December we wrote about Connecticut’s long-awaited victory by court affirmation in the fight to let its cities attach to utility poles at no cost in pursuit of spurring municipal broadband efforts. A similar effort seems to have stalled in its neighbor to the north, with HD 4492 languishing in the Massachusetts Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.
The bill, “An Act To Establish Municipal Access To Utility Poles Located In Municipal Rights-Of-Way,” is simple. It modifies Chapter 166, Section 22a of the state’s General Laws to eliminate pole attachment fees for cities working to build broadband networks to reach “unserved or underserved areas” (as defined by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)), shifting the expense instead to the current pole owner(s). John Barrett introduced the bill and two dozen fellow legislators co-signed it. It calls for:
Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, for the purpose of safeguarding access to infrastructure essential to public health, safety and welfare, an owner of a shared-use pole and each entity attaching to that pole is responsible for that owner's or entity's own expenses for make-ready work to accommodate a municipality's attaching its facilities to that shared-use pole: a) For a governmental purpose consistent with the police power of the municipality; or b) For the purpose of providing broadband service to an unserved or underserved area.
Up in the Air
For parts of the country where aerial fiber sits at the core of network builds as a result of challenges posed by underlying geology (bedrock), overlying geography (topography), or other concerns that preempt underground construction, utility poles are the answer. Massachusetts has more than a million of them, and for projects just navigating the franchise areas of electric utility pole owners [pds] alone could be a daunting task. Getting timely, affordable access for make-ready work is an obstacle which can easily stall and kill a broadband project even when the...Read more
Chicopee, Massachusetts, Ward 1 City Councilor Joel McAuliffe wrote an editorial recently that is well worth reading. In it, he explains how his city of 55,000 people, situated a few miles north of Springfield, has seen in concrete terms the benefits of building a municipal fiber network a year ago. Crossroads Fiber — an initiative of Chicopee Electric Light (founded 1896) — began connecting customers in late summer of last year, with the utility building out in phases. There are plans to provide service to everyone connected to electric. Even so, he says, citizens are already benefitting from municipal fiber during the current pandemic:
Fiber optic cables continue working during power outages and remain lightning-fast no matter how many users are plugged in. These past few months, internet usage has spiked worldwide, but municipal broadband is allowing hundreds of people in Chicopee to stay connected without interruption.
McAuliffe emphasizes the centrality of fiber to towns and cities in all realms who are looking to the future. And while it’s been nice to see large telecoms stepping in to donate or help communities get connected, McAuliffe rightly emphasizes the dangers of relying on corporate generosity instead of investing in local infrastructure that will benefit the community for generations to come:
Chicopee’s investment in municipal broadband is the first step, but we and cities across the country must commit to further investment to build a more prosperous and equitable society. It is becoming clear why a fast, reliable internet connection is absolutely essential for today and for our future.
We’ve covered Chicopee and Crossroads Fiber a couple of times before, and Christopher spoke with City Councilor McAuliffe on...Read more
Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) started its broadband division WhipCity Fiber and the buildout of their network five years ago. The project started with only serving Westfield, but WG+E is now contracting with other small towns in Massachusetts to assist in building and potentially operating their own fiber networks.
Today, WG+E is slated to help connect 12,400 households in 20 Massachusetts towns over the next 10 years. In order to do this, WG+E and WhipCity Fiber will receive more than $10 million over the next ten years through the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which awarded $1.5 billion in subsidies to broadband providers to expand rural connectivity across the nation. The 20 towns that are partnering with WG+E to build fiber networks are: Alford, Ashfield, Blandford, Becket, Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colrain, Cummington, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, New Ashford, New Salem, Otis, Plainfield, Rowe, Shutesbury, Washington, Wendell, and Windsor.
Adapting While Expanding
Westfield has been slowly building out its network, which is owned and operated by WG+E, and it is now roughly 75 percent complete. Lisa Stowe, the communications manager at WG+E, said that they temporarily paused new installations in Westfield due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, she is hopeful that they will begin connecting new customers and resume their buildout of the network this year.
To construct the WhipCity Fiber network, Westfield issued a $15 million bond. The city must pay down that bond and do routine updates to the network as they continue expanding. Stowe explained that they are well on track to having the network fully constructed within their original six year timeline.
WG+E has been adaptable during the ongoing pandemic. In partnership with the state, they have helped install nine free Wi-Fi hotspots in the region with more on the way. Additionally, as a stopgap for not being able to connect new...Read more
As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing. Washington and Massachusetts are on different coasts, but both states are working with publicly owned broadband networks to deploy emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Washington, a state-led initiative is deploying hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points with the help of community networks, including Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a statewide middle-mile network, and several Public Utility Districts (PUDs). And on the other side of the country, Massachusetts has enlisted the help of municipal network Whip City Fiber to establish Wi-Fi hotspots in communities with poor connectivity.
The drive-up public hotspots will allow residents of both states to complete online school assignments, apply for unemployment insurance, and connect with healthcare providers, among other essential tasks.
“We’ve all been in a position where we understand to connect to the world during this really challenging time, Wi-Fi is essential,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington Department of Commerce, during a livestreamed launch of the state Wi-Fi initiative.
Washington Partners with PUDs for Wi-Fi
The initiative in Washington is being led by the Washington State Broadband Office and the Department of Commerce in partnership with NoaNet, regional PUDs, the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, Washington Technology Solutions, Washington State University, and others. In addition to the existing Wi-Fi hotspots that schools and libraries have made accessible from their parking lots, the partners plan to set up more than 300 new access points in underserved areas, using state funding and philanthropic donations. A map of all public Wi-Fi locations is...Read more
Earlier this month, OpenCape Corporation, a nonprofit fiber provider in southeastern Massachusetts, announced that it will pilot Fiber-to-the-Premises residential service at a new mixed-use development in Hyannis on Cape Cod. For the project, CapeBuilt Development is renovating a historic building to house apartments and businesses. Thanks to OpenCape’s connectivity, they will be first fully fiberized residential units on the Cape.
OpenCape hopes that the pilot project in Hyannis will serve as a model for towns in the region that are looking to invest in municipal broadband networks.
The Covid-19 pandemic emphasizes the importance of investing in quality connectivity for Cape Cod families to enable working and learning from home. “The only way that becomes truly possible is to ensure that they have access to robust, reliable and affordable Internet connectivity in their homes,” said OpenCape CEO Steven Johnston in the press release.
In response to the current public health crisis, OpenCape has also upgraded customers’ bandwidth and taken the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge to not disconnect customers affected by the pandemic or charge late fees. “It is something we feel fits within our mission, that we are supposed to be serving the communities in southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod,” Johnston told the Falmouth Enterprise.
“Hip and Historic”
The location of OpenCape’s new pilot, 255 Main, is a restoration of the town’s historic Furman building, which once housed the Hyannis Board of Trade during the previous century. “It is incredibly fitting that 255 Main will be the very first fiber enabled residential units on Cape Cod,”...Read more
When Paul Revere rode through Concord, Massachusetts, to warn the Colonists about the Red Coats, horseback was the fastest way to move information. More than 240 years later, the community that was so instrumental to founding of the United States as we know it now sends information via their own fast, affordable, reliable Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) municipal network. This week, Concord's former CIO Mark Howell joins Christopher to talk about the community and their investment.
Mark discusses the community's history and the story of the network, which includes their reasons for investing in the infrastructure. He talks about the local citizens' enthusiasm for the project and what it was like to go from operating an electric utility to adding Internet access for the public. Mark also discusses the funding mechanism that Concord used to pay for the project and shares a few of the many benefits that the network has brought to Concord and its people.
Christopher and Mark review the reasoning behind the different service offerings available to subscribers and the rationale behind choosing these tiers. They also talk about some of the challenges Concord has faced and Mark gets into the possibilities of regional efforts in order to maximize the possibility of reaching more households.
Read more about the network in the 2017 report published by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, ...Read more
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...Read more
Early survey results confirm the potential for a community broadband network in the coastal town of Falmouth, Massachusetts, reports The Falmouth Enterprise. Responses suggest wide dissatisfaction with service from the town’s current providers. Out of 378 respondents, 70 percent want better Internet access in the Cape Cod community; 92 percent want more competition.
Falmouth Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC) commissioned the survey as part of a feasibility study examining the potential for municipal broadband in the town of 32,000 people. With the initial results in hand, EDIC decided to continue with the second portion of the feasibility study to be completed later this year, moving Falmouth closer toward its own community network.
Community Support Grows
Municipal buildings and community anchor institutions in Falmouth already have Internet access through a local open access network operated by nonprofit OpenCape, resulting in significant cost savings. However, residents also want better connectivity for the rest of the community. Support for a municipal network grew throughout 2018 and 2019, culminating in EDIC issuing an RFP for a community network feasibility study in July.
Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell travelled to Falmouth in the Fall of 2019 to discuss the community’s efforts on local television. During the program, he spoke with community leaders about the benefits of locally owned connectivity, the examples set by other municipal networks, and the unique opportunities that Falmouth has.
Study and Next Steps
The survey, conducted by CCG Consulting, revealed that more than half of...Read more