Holyoke Success Spurs Interest in Mass Muni Networks - Community Broadband Bits Episode 162

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. 

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."



David Talbot:  So, I just think it's like anything else.  I mean, people know what they know, and to do something that seems completely different is just -- it can be hard to get off the mark and do that.


Lisa Gonzalez:  Hello again.  This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  This is Lisa Gonzalez.

David Talbot, a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center joins Chris this week to discuss their most recent report about the community of Holyoke, Massachusetts.  The report goes into how the community built its municipal network, how it has capitalized on the asset for savings and economic development, and it offers valuable suggestions for other communities with an interest in municipal networks.  We encourage you to download and read the full report, at cyber.law.harvard.edu.  Now, here to talk about Holyoke, Massachusetts; municipal broadband networks; and the new Berkman report is Chris, and David Talbot.


Chris Mitchell:  Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  I'm Chris Mitchell.  Today, I'm speaking with David Talbot, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard [pronounced Haa-vaad] University.  Welcome to the show.


David Talbot:  Thanks, Chris.  I appreciate it.  And that was good on the "Haa-vaad."


Chris:  [laughs]  I understand you have a paak there.


David:  Yeah, we do.  We have a couple of paaks, and we put the caas over there, yeah.


Chris:  And you're running a project called the Municipal Fiber Initiative.  Now, for people who aren't aware, Harvard is a university, I believe.  Right?


David:  That is correct.


Chris:  Yeah.  Fairly well known.  And it has this Berkman Center, which, actually, just -- I think it's not as well known as it should be.  It's produced a number of great studies.  And one I think a lot of people were aware of is around the time of the National Broadband Plan, before you were at Berkman, there was as study about open access and unbundling requirements around the world, that I still think of as a definitive paper on the subject.  So, been around for a long time.  Tell me about the Municipal Fiber Initiative.


David:  The idea in setting it up was to help, initially, municipalities in the state of Massachusetts understand what their connectivity options are.  There's a lot going on in the state, as there is nationally.  Most of it has to do with the 123 towns in the western -- mostly in the western part of the state, that just had a big middle-mile backbone built for them.  And there's a lot of activity around that.  But that's just one part of what's going on in the state.  And outside of that context, it's less clear what municipalities should be doing.  So we're just trying to do -- add some more research to the field.  And part of that means doing case studies on what the few municipal governments that HAVE done fiber networks and Internet access, you know, what they've actually done, and how well they've done at it.


Chris:  Right.  And this really looks, I think, as you mentioned, the Western Massachusetts areas --  You know, for people who aren't familiar, we talked about this about three months ago with Monica Webb. We've talked about it with multiple folks.  In fact, we've had Holyoke on this show themselves.  And it's -- Western Massachusetts is quite rural.  It has these, you know, mountains that are -- large hills, if you're from the Rockies, I guess.  But they're certainly disruptive in terms of topology.  And it's a unique challenge, I think, for Massachusetts.  And so you've released this report on how one town -- and, indeed, how many towns you've also profiled, but it really focuses on one town.  And it's called, "[Holyoke:] A Massachusetts Municipal Light Plant Seizes Internet Access Business Opportunities."


David:  Correct.


Chris:  Right.


David:  And you're referring to our Holyoke study.  And it's probably worth just mentioning that there was an earlier study done by Susan Crawford and Robyn Mohr on one of these actual rural towns that you were just setting up, called Leverett, which is doing a fiber-to-the-home build-out.  Holyoke is actually quite a bit different than that.  And it's a municipal light plant that's been around for more than a hundred years, and has actually been doing this for quite a long time.  And it really has nothing to do with this middle-mile backbone that the state built.

This is one of the 41 municipal light plants that has been in the electricity business, and is one of 10 in the state that are actually doing Internet access.  To my knowledge, there's never been a deep dive done on, you know, how well have any of these 10 actually done?  And, really, just walk the reader through what they did, how they did it, and how it all went.  And the idea here was to chronicle this and -- for the benefit of any of the others who might want to, you know, either expand what they're doing or start in that business anew.


Chris:  And, for people who aren't aware, a municipal "light plant" is what Massachusetts calls a municipal public power provider, or an electric department, or ...


David:  Correct.


Chris:  ... electric plant board, depending on what part of the country you're from.  But, fundamentally, it's a city-owned municipal electric.


David:  That's correct.  Yup.  And Holyoke is one of those, as you've described.  And it's one of the outliers, in that, in the late '90s, they actually did go into the Internet access business, where most of their counterparts didn't.  Which is a -- kind of a -- still a mystery to me, why some did and some didn't.  There's a couple cases where there was a clear, you know, gap in service.  I guess they all had gaps in service, but some were particularly striking.  So it was a clearer argument for going into this.  And Shrewsbury was one of those.  You know, Holyoke had the usual DSL, cable offerings.  And what they did was, they built a fiber ring for their municipal government first, and then started serving businesses.  But the initial driver was to put in fiber to substations for the electrical utility.  Which is what many of them have done.  But, you know, why they then went into offering this for businesses is a more idiosyncratic story.  And quite an interesting one.  Over the past 15 years, they've come to serve 300 businesses of all sizes, including a number of large institutions.  And they've done quite well.  And they've also saved the city quite a bit of money by doing a number of networking services for the city.


Chris:  You know, one of the things that I try to do is admit when I'm wrong about things.  And I've been critical of projects like the Mass Broadband project -- these state middle-mile approaches -- in part because I think there's often an unreasonable expectation that it will result in last-mile investment, if there's good middle-mile availability.  And I think that's an incorrect analysis.  But, in this case, you document a couple of ways in which Holyoke is able to help nearby communities because of that Mass Broadband network that was built, in part, with stimulus dollars.


David:  That's correct.  So, first, just to square away what they did before they started extending using that network, is that they -- some of the key findings were that they saved the city about $300,000 a year in various networking services.  And they're serving 300 businesses.  And their revenue is growing.  Which is different than what electricity revenues are doing.  And they're actually making profits on the telecom side.

But, to your point, so here's this state middle-mile backbone that you mentioned, that goes through Holyoke.  It kind of -- you know, Holyoke already had a network, but then here comes this middle-mile, and it goes through Holyoke and up Interstate 91.  And one of the communities it goes through is [no-glossary]Greenfield[/no-glossary], Massachusetts, which is about 30 miles to the north, up the Connecticut River.  And so, along comes the [no-glossary]Greenfield[/no-glossary] mayor, and he wants to do big things up in his city.  And the place he wants to start is, he wants to get, you know, high-speed service on his nodes that the state put in.  So, the person he calls is actually Holyoke -- the Holyoke Municipal Utility, and this fellow, Tim Haas.  And says, what can you do?  And now, thanks to this middle-mile backbone, they are now the Internet service provider for the City of [no-glossary]Greenfield[/no-glossary]'s City Hall and police department.  And they collect a modest monthly fee for that.  And that's just kind of -- that's very interesting.  And it's something I don't think anybody thought of when the state put this in -- that one municipality, that was already in this business, would start becoming the ISP for another.

Another way that the middle-mile backbone was leveraged was for the town of Leverett, which, we talked about earlier, is doing a fiber-to-the-home build-out.  When it needed a project manager for that, again, it called the Holyoke Municipal Utility, because it was kind of known in the region as being a place that had some expertise.  And so, again, it was this same fellow, Tim Haas -- who maybe you should interview someday, if you haven't already.  Or maybe that's who you were talking about.


Chris:  Right.  We did have him on this show.  I want to say maybe a year ago, about.


David:  About -- maybe it was about Leverett.  It could have been about Leverett.


Chris:  Well, I think it was more about just all the things Holyoke does.  I mean, I think we found them interesting for the same reason YOU found them so interesting.  So --


David:  OK.


Chris:  But we have our Podcast Index, that people can check out now, and see all the past interviews we've done.  And he's one of them.


David:  Well, he's basically Maytag repairman of the region, although I guess the analogy is imperfect, because the Maytag repairman never had anything to do.


Chris:  [laughs]


David:  But, yes.  So, they hired Tim to do the -- and Holyoke Gas & Electric to do the project management.  And then, now they're the network manager for the fiber-to-the-home project in Leverett.  So, they're actually monitoring the Leverett network through the state's middle-mile backbone, back to their terminals in Holyoke.  So that's another use that the state project has been put to, that perhaps would not have been anticipated.  But it also -- and it also illus- -- so it illustrates the value of the middle-mile backbone.  And it also illustrates the interesting things that a town or city can do, you know, having entered the business to serve their local residents.  You know, here come these other interesting business opportunities that emerge on a wider scale across the region.


Chris:  Right.  And for people who were a little more curious about Leverett, Leverett knew that it wanted to own the service.  They, in fact, raised taxes on themselves to build it.  But they didn't want to have to develop the expertise to operate it, or run it.  And so, they own it; it's basically looked after, to make sure everything's working well, by Holyoke.  But the service is actually provided by a local private company called Crocker.  So, it's an interesting sort of three-stage deal.


David:  Yup.  There's another inter-municipal agreement that's worth mentioning, that preceded the state's project.  And that is that, next-door to Holyoke is another mill city called Chickopee.  And it also has a municipal electric utility.  And about 10 years ago, they decided that they wanted to try to serve businesses, too.  And, instead of standing up their own telecom division, as Holyoke did, they said, well, why don't we just have those guys be our provider?  And we'll lease them the fiber.  And so we'll get a little chunk of income from that.  And then they can make their extra revenue from serving, now, I think, about 35 business customers in Chickopee.  The benefits of municipal collaboration really shine through in this case study.


Chris:  And, one other thing that I want to make sure we mention is, there seems to be an academic center that, arguably, would not have chosen Holyoke if they did not have this capability.  And that's bringing jobs and prestige into the community.  What's happening there?


David:  So, that -- you're referring to the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is a regional computing facility and data center for several academic institutions.  And the largest reason why they chose Holyoke was because of the very cheap electricity.  Holyoke has a dam and hydropower.  So, it's cheap, and it's also quote-unquote "green" electricity.


Chris:  Well, let me just interrupt you for a second, to note that I think if National Grid or another private company owned that dam, it wouldn't be cheap in Holyoke.  So, that's just ...


David:  Well, that's true.  I mean, you're correct that munis generally have much cheaper electricity prices than the investor-owned utilities.  So you're right about that.  And that's an advantage that they probably should be, you know, trumpeting a little bit more than they do.  But, as you were alluding to, the other reason why this consortium chose Holyoke was because it did have the fiber capability in the municipal utility.  And Holyoke Gas & Electric's Telecom Division did the fiber connection to the facility, connecting back though Holyoke and Chickopee to an academic network that goes up and down the East Coast.  So, the utility got that job, to do the connection.  And they also, in doing that connection, added a lot more fiber for themselves.  They covered the incremental materials cost out of their own -- you know, out of their own cash.  So -- but they got a huge extra benefit out of the project, in that they were able to cheaply expand their own municipal fiber network.  And, yes, as you point out, also, the -- there's now an innovation district around this.  And I'm hearing that some businesses are moving in, thanks to the anchor tenant of the data center.


Chris:  There's one other thing that I'll just tease.  Because I think people should read the report.  And in it, you talk about the -- a test-bed, where they were, after the horrific bombing at the Boston Marathon, they were testing out some new security protocols, and they were able to do that in one of these towns because of the municipal fiber.  So, if people want to read that, and the rest of the report, where can they find the report?


David:  If you -- the easiest way is to just -- since we're doing this on an audio -- is to do a search for "Berkman Center publications."  And it will bring up our list of publications.  And, right now, I think it's the first or second one.  And it's pretty easy to find that way.


Chris:  And we'll link to it on the show page.  But let me just say that this is one of THE most beautiful laid-out, nicely-looking graphical reports.  So, I'm really appreciative of that.  I think we need more of that attention to detail.  So, I want to congratulate you for that.


David:  Well, thanks.  That's the many years of magazine and newspaper journalism that I come from.


Chris:  Well, I want to ask you something about -- sort of a different title that you hold.  You serve on your MLP light board -- the board of your MLP.  [laughs]


David:  That's right.  I do.


Chris:  So, why don't you tell us a little bit about that.  And, for people who may not appreciate, what does it take for an MLP that has not historically been in telecom to think about getting into telecom?


David:  That is the $64,000 question.  You know, going into this report, I was thinking a lot about my own utility, the Reading Municipal Light Department.  And I have not actually done research on our territory.  The question that's been in my mind -- of 41 utilities, why did only 10 go into this business and 31 did not?  And why don't they talk to each other?  Because my experience was, they don't talk to each other.  So the big thing that was in my mind throughout this process was, I really want to produce something here that the other 31 can relate to, and maybe take some lessons from.  And we're really just at the beginning, in the talking stages of that, at my utility.  And I think there's a huge learning curve.  Because if you've only been in the electricity business for 100-odd years, and that's your culture, and that's what you understand to be your mission, it's very hard to think out of that box.  And that's totally understandable.  So I just think it's like anything else.  I mean, people know what they know.  And to do something that seems completely different is just -- it can be hard to get off the mark and do that.  So, I think what you have to have, as you've pointed out many times, is, you need a local champion.  You need to identify what an opportunity might be, locally.  Whether that be saving your municipality money, expanding your municipal applications that you can do, or hitting an economic development zone, or underserved businesses.  Or simply adding competition, thinking that it will really improve -- lift all boats.  That you really need to identify those things, and understand that those opportunities are there.  And then know how to proceed.  And we're really just at the early talking stages in my own community on that.  Because we do have, you know, service from Comcast and Verizon already.


Chris:  I think all the things you laid out are really good.  It's the sort of things that are well-suggested by Jim Baller and other people who have been around here for a long time, in terms of the need for a champion, and finding that hook locally.  You're an investigative journalist.


David:  By background, that is mainly what I've done, is journalism -- for most of my career.  Correct.


Chris:  So, for six months, you've been focused on telecom.  You know, was there -- have there been any sort of surprises, or any sort of interesting things you've observed, that you wouldn't have expected if I asked you six months ago what telecom was all about?


David:  What's been surprising to me is that we have 41 of these utilities in the state of Massachusetts.  They serve almost a million people.  They've got thousands of businesses.  And there's basically no conversation that happens between them, at any scale or regularity, on this aspect of their business.  Nor is there really any involvement of the state in helping these 41, either to leverage their resources among themselves, or to help them build technical capacity.  They're always developed in idiosyncratic ways.  And it's just a very under-studied part of public life in this state.


Chris:  Something that I was not aware of until I visited you when you unveiled this paper: your utility, even though they're not providing any lit services, they are already doing dark fiber, for other entities that need it.


David:  That's right.  And, again, I want to emphasize that, you know, I have not actually done research on my community.  But just from my board service, and going to meetings, you know, we hear what's going on.  And  we built a fiber loop through our four towns, for much the same reason as Holyoke did, which was to service our own infrastructure.  So that loop is up and running.  And, again, I'm talking about things that -- I know this from being -- from my time in Reading, and on my board, that these are things that have just come to happen over the years.

Stage One is to just sit down with all the different entities, you know, within your city or your town and see who might have put something in for a specific purpose, you know, 5-10-15 years ago.  And now, there's all these different bits of fiber around.  The first thing is to get a grip on the big picture, of what all of it is, and what it all adds up to.


Chris:  Right.  Well, thank you so much for coming on this show.  Are there -- are there any last points you'd like to make before we call it a day?


David:  No, I think we're looking forward to doing more reports.  And more events.  So that we can just get the communities in this state and this region to understand what each other are doing and what their options are.


Chris:  Great!  Well, thank you.


David:  Thank you very much, Chris.


Lisa:  E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show.  We want you to follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets .  Once again, we want to thank bkfm-b-side for their song, "Raise Your Hands," licensed through Creative Commons.  Thanks for listening.