A few weeks back, we noted an excellent new report on Holyoke Municipal Light Plant in Massachusetts published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This week, we discuss the report and lessons learned from it with David Talbot, Fellow at the Berkman Center. David gives us some of the key takeaways from the report and we discuss what other municipal light plants are doing, including how Holyoke Gas & Electric is using the state owned middle mile network to partner with other municipalities like Greenfield and Leverett. Finally, David offers some insight into how the municipal light plants that have not yet engaged in expanding Internet access think about the challenges of doing so. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) episode 65, where we interviewed Tim Haas of Holyoke Gas & Electric. Read the transcript from this episode here. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."
A few weeks ago, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society released a report that documents the achievements of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) Telecom, a municipal electric utility that now provides fiber-optic broadband Internet to local businesses in several western Massachusetts towns. The utility’s move into fiber-optics has led to municipal savings for the City of Holyoke, as well as increased high-speed access in neighboring cities, and driven economic development. We interviewed Holyoke's Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, in a previous episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Because the state of Massachusetts has no barriers that prevent the creation of municipal Internet networks, HG&E has been able to compete on a level playing field with incumbent ISPs Comcast and Charter. HG&E is among 12 MLPs (Municipal Light Plants) out of 41 in the state to offer fiber Internet services. Researchers at the Berkman Center believe that MLPs could play a large role in expanding Internet access and business opportunities throughout the state as electricity revenues experience diminishing returns and data needs grow. For example, HG&E’s fiber connection was a factor in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center’s decision to open a $90 million data center in Holyoke.
HG&E is a somewhat unique municipal network in that it offers services not only in Holyoke, but also in nearby Chicopee. It also assists Leverett and Greenfield with their own networks. In Chicopee, the utility provided fiber access in a collaboration with 35 local businesses. In Leverett, it is managing the municipal network, with services provided by a local private company. As for Greenfield, HG&E now serves as the ISP for City Hall and the city’s police station, both of which will function as Internet access nodes as the town looks to create a fiber and wireless network that extends into homes and businesses.
Unlike in North Carolina and Tennessee, where public interest groups had to petition the FCC to strike down a law preventing cities from extending fiber into...Read more
In April, Chris spoke at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin. If you were not able to attend, Saul Tannenbaum's Readfold.com article gives you a taste of what it was like. Tannenbaum is a member of the Cambridge Broadband Task Force, recently set up by the city's City Manager to investigate the possibility of municipal broadband connectivity.
Tannenbaum describes his experience there and some of the typical discussions he encounters while investigating a muni network. What role should the local or state government play in bettering connectivity? What is preventing the U.S. from excelling at ubiquitous access for all income levels? Why a municipal network? For Tannenbaum, and other residents of Cambridge, those questions are especially significant because the town is historically a place of technological innovation. Gigabit connectivity may be the gold standard, but in a place like Cambridge, it is the minimum:
Cambridge has companies and institutions for whom high capacity, high speed networks are mission critical. MIT, Harvard, the Broad Institute, Google, Microsoft, Biogen-Idec, Novartis, and many others who are not yet household names, move large amounts as part of daily work. With partners like those, Cambridge can become a true testbed for the network of the future. Cambridge, where the Internet was invented, can be where the next Internet is developed.
We encourage you to read the entire article, which also offers up some great resources, but Tannenbaum made the case for his home town:
[Cambridge] pairs a legacy of being on the frontiers of social justice with an economic sector whose future health requires a free and open Internet. It is a rarity in Cambridge politics to find the interests of our innovation community and our social justice community to be so closely aligned.
Momentum is growing in WiredWest territory and each town that votes takes on a fresh enthusiasm. New Salem is one of the latest communities to overwhelmingly support joining the municipal broadband cooperative. The Recorder reported that all but one of the 189 registered New Salem voters chose to authorize borrowing $1.5 million to move forward with the initiative. There are now 22 towns that have joined.
According to Moderator Calvin Layton, a typical town meeting draws 60 to 70 voters, far less than this one did. Apparently, investing in better connectivity is a hot button issue in places like New Salem, where Internet access is slow, scant, and expensive.
Poor connectivity has impacted local commerce and even driven some residents with home-based businesses away from New Salem. For Travis Miller, a role playing game designer, and his wife Samantha Scott, an IT professional, the town’s slow Internet speeds were holding them back so they moved away. In a letter to the New Salem Broadband Committee, Miller wrote:
A lack of broadband Internet service was one of the elements in our decision to move. A substantial online presence has become a basic requirement for successful table top game designers. Many of the platforms used to interact with fans and clients require broadband service. Our lack limits my income and makes further penetration into the market difficult if not impossible.
Adam Frost — owner of an online toy store, The Wooden Wagon — also found New Salem’s slow Internet speeds to be a limiting factor for his business. He said:
Though The Wooden Wagon is a specialty business, our needs are not unique: pretty much any business owner or person hoping to telecommute has the same requirements. Businesses outside the region with whom we work expect us to be at the same level technologically as they: they will not make concessions just because our Internet service is outdated. We must keep up, or be left behind.
Communities in western Massachusetts are each taking up authorization...Read more
Fifteen years ago, Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) began its incremental fiber deployment to meet the need for better connectivity in the community. Since then, they have invested savings created by initial and subsequent investments. Over the years, HG&E expanded their services, becoming the ISP for several local business customers in two nearby communities. HG&E also established a regional interconnection agreement and it is now an ISP for municipal agencies in a third community 30 miles away.
The Berkman Center's most recent report, report, "Holyoke: A Massachusetts Municipal Light Plant Seizes Internet Access Business Opportunities,” documents their story.
From the Abstract:
The Holyoke Gas & Electric Department’s telecom division competes with Comcast and Charter and serves 300 business customers and numerous public buildings. It has shown steady growth in revenues, and $500,000 in net earnings over the past decade. It also saves the city at least $300,000 a year on various Internet access and networking services. HG&E's telecom division is also now providing a variety of services to three other municipalities. Finally, the utility is considering a residential high-speed Internet access offering, something the muni in neighboring Westfield is piloting later this year. HG&E’s success in a competitive environment was achieved without any debt issuance, tax, or subsidy from electricity or gas ratepayers.
- HG&E Telecom saves city offices and HG&E itself more than $300,000 a year by providing Internet access and networking and telephone services to public agencies.
- The utility provides approximately 300 businesses and large institutions with telecom services and creates competition, which tends to improve service offerings from all market participants, aiding the local economy.
- HG&E Telecom forged inter-municipal agreements that extend services and accompanying benefits to the neighboring city of Chicopee and to the city of Greenfield, 30 miles north.
- While HG&E Telecom has focused on selling services to businesses, the utility is now considering a residential fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) offering, given the declining market pressure to provide television content.
In a recent Boston Globe Opinion, Dante Ramos notes that Boston has a reputation as a technology hub. When seeking options and affordability, however, Ramos recounts the successful approach of Lafayette, Louisiana:
Today, the top broadband speeds advertised to residential customers in Boston are about one-ninth of what’s available in Lafayette. A municipal network in Boston isn’t inconceivable; the fiber-optic network now connecting scores of government facilities could theoretically become the spine of a citywide system.
Ramos acknowledges the challenges Boston would face if it were to take up such a project, but he also notes that it was no small feat for Lafayette. The economic development gains have more than justified the investment:
Half a decade later, though, the benefits have come into view. A company serving an active Louisiana film industry can use the Lafayette network to transmit massive quantities of digital footage. Employees of a major jewelry manufacturer in town can get medical advice remotely without having to go in and out of a highly secure plant. And the presence of the network is shaping investment decisions in subtle ways.
Ramos shares the story of his encounter with the owner of a local Internet consulting firm who chose the company data center location because it was within the LUS Fiber service area. He also valued the network's speed, reliability, and quality customer service.
Lafayette's network has also continually drawn in new employers, including three high tech companies in the fall of 2014. Along with those approximately 1,300 well paying positions come the multiplier effect on the local economy.
Ramos' piece inspired a letter to the Globe from Art Gaylord and Dan Gallagher, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Senior Consultant respectively, from OpenCape. The two find inspiration in the story of Lafayette but lament what they see as a lack of enthusiasm in the Cape Cod region.
The 350-mile OpenCape network was developed...Read more
When Westminster, a community of 18,000 in rural Maryland, found itself with poor Internet access that incumbents refused to improve, it decided to join the ranks of a growing trend: public-private-partnerships between local governments and private companies to invest in next-generation Internet access. They are now working with Ting - one of a growing number of private sector firms seeking partnerships with cities – though how partnerships are structured varies significantly across communities.
In building an infrastructure intended to serve the community for decades, city leaders knew Westminster should retain ownership of the network to ensure it would remain locally accountable. Ting is leasing fiber on the network and providing Internet services to the community with plans to offer some type of video in the near future. The public-private-partnership (or “P3”) includes a temporary exclusivity arrangement for two years or when a minimum number of subscriptions are activated. Westminster will then have the ability to open up its network to other providers in an open access arrangement.
Communities are realizing that if they want better connectivity, they need to take matters into their own hands. As local leaders wade through the complex process of planning, financing, and deploying Internet network infrastructure, P3s are becoming more common. Communities with little or no experience in managing fiber optic networks may assume that P3s are safer or easier. That may be true or not depending on the specific P3 approach; the data is only starting to come in. P3s have been relatively rare compared to the hundreds of local governments that have chosen to build their own networks in recent decades.
Partnerships will continue playing a larger role when improving local connectivity but this area is still maturing – there are already a few examples of successful P3s though many will also recall the failed Gigabit Squared P3 approach.
P3s are more established in municipal public works projects involving other areas of infrastructure. A November 2013 Governing article by Ryan...Read more
Folks in Princeton, Massachusetts have anxiously awaited better broadband for about two years as community leaders explored ways to deploy fiber in the community. According to the Telegram, the wait will be even longer than expected. The tentative deal between Princeton and Matrix Design Group for a public private partnership is over.
As we reported last December, 90 percent of voters attending a special town meeting approved a measure to borrow funds to get deployment started. Princeton planned to use $1.2 million for make-ready measures to pave the way for Matrix to install its FTTH network. The town would not have to pay any more to construct the network, but they would be sacrificing control over the infrastructure.
Apparently, it is this lack of control that soured the proposed deal. From the Telegram article:
But while the town authorized borrowing the money, the broadband light plant commissioners could not secure authorization from bond counsel to borrow the money without an operating agreement that said the town had control over the design, construction, operation, maintenance and pricing of the network.
“Matrix, citing its business model, was not willing to discuss or negotiate its position of network control for a period of 20 years before turning it over to us,”[said Stan Moss, Princeton Selectman and one of the leaders of the initiative].
As part of the agreement between Princeton and Matrix, the city would have obtained control and ownership of the network after 20 years.
Another wrinkle in the plan appeared when Princeton learned that they would not qualify for grant money available from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI). The organization is handling distribution of state and federal funds to assist in local deployments. Handing over control of the network to a private party in such a fashion is against the criteria established for grant eligibility.
The Princeton Broadband Committee will petition bond...Read more
Our second episode of Community Broadband Bits featured an interview with Monica Webb, Chair of the Wired West Board and Spokesperson. Three years later, we are excited to have Monica on the show again to update us on their recent progress.
As we recently noted, the state has decided to contribute significantly to the capital costs of a network connecting these rural towns and the towns are currently voting on whether to move forward.
In our discussion, we discuss Wired West and what it is like to live with very poor Internet access in 2015. You can read all of our coverage of Wired West here. Keep an eye on @Wired_West on Twitter for breaking news - 2 more communities voted to move forward with overwhelming majorities last night!
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."
On Tuesday, May 5th, Chris will speak at an open meeting to provide information on municipal fiber networks. The community is in the process of exploring the possibility of investing in infrastructure to improve local connectivity.
The city formed its task force in 2014 and are in the process of establishing a relationship with a consultant to help them move forward.
The presentation will be at the Harvard Information Center, 1350 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The event starts at 5 p.m.