Possibilities, Challenges, Risks : Chicopee, Massachusetts, Considers A Muni - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 335

By the time a local community is ready to light up their municipal fiber optic network, they’ve already invested several years' worth of debate, investigation, and energy. While deploying a network is certainly a complicated task, educating the community, growing support, and helping elected officials determine the best approach is equally difficult. What’s it like in the early stages for those visionaries who feel that their city or town needs a publicly owned option?

This week we find out from Chicopee’s Joel McAuliffe, Councilor for Ward 1. He’s been advocating for a municipal broadband network for several years and his message is growing. In addition to working to educate his fellow council members about the need for local high-speed Internet access, Joel has reached out to folks in the community. Last fall, he encouraged citizens to sign an online petition supporting the proposal and to contact their elected officials to urge them to move forward on the matter.

Joel describes how the city has certain advantages that he’d like to capitalize on for a citywide fiber network. He talks about local concerns that are driving the effort, such as high rates and poor services, and that with a municipal network to offer competition, he believes Chicopee can attract new business and new residents from the Boston area. Chris and Joel also discuss the challenges for a city council in making decisions based on technology when they are not well-versed in those technologies.

When Joel introduced his petition to the community, he also published this short video to encourage people to sign and share:

This show is 37 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Joel McAuliffe: What is the cost of not doing it? If we don't make this investment now, if we don't be at the forefront of this technology at this utility, what opportunities are we losing?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 335 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. When a local community considers developing a publicly-owned fiber optic network, the process from idea to implementation typically takes several years. This week, Christopher talks with Joel McAuliffe, city councilor from Chicopee, Massachusetts, a community that is currently involved in that process of consideration. Joel and Christopher discuss the city, what Internet access is like there, and the work that they've done so far in exploring options for better connectivity. They talk about some of the reasons why Joel thinks that investing in a network is the best option for his community and what they stand to risk if they don't take action. Joel also discusses what it's like as an elected official faced with this type of issue. Now, here's Christopher with councilor Joel McAuliffe from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Joel McAuliffe, the city councilor in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.

Joel McAuliffe: Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: This is going to be, I think, a very good back and forth discussion. You have done a lot of research into this, you're a strong advocate for an aggressive municipal network in Chicopee, and you've made a difference — you're heading in that direction. So that's kind of a preview, but let's start a little bit with where is Chicopee and what is it's sort of economic situation. You know, what's it like to live there?

Joel McAuliffe: Sure. So we're about 90 miles west of Boston. We're known as the crossroads of New England. We're pretty much the center of Interstate 91, all the major highways. After coming from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, you come through here. It used to be a major industrial hub. It's where a lot of railroads would cross through. We had a "Town of Seven Railroads." It's a huge industrial hub. We are home to the Ames Manufacturing Company, which made swords during the Civil War for the Union army. So we have a huge industrial base — home of Uniroyal, an old tire manufacturer. So that's really where we stand. We're a town of 56,000. We're trending upwards. We're growing in terms of population. And we're also home to the largest air reserve base in the country, Westover Air Reserve Base, so a huge military component here as well.

Christopher Mitchell: And your background is that you had previously worked for the mayor, but tell us a little bit about where you come from.

Joel McAuliffe: I grew up in Chicopee, went to school there, and shortly after my second year of college, was hired by the mayor of the city of Chicopee. I had run previously as a teen for school committee and was unsuccessful, but after my second attempt, the mayor hired me to work in his office. And it was in that time period where I did some work, working on certain special projects, where I came across the success of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which peaked my interest in municipal broadband, and also paid attention to what President Obama did in his State of the Union in 2015, where he pushed the success of certain municipal broadband utilities across the country and encouraged municipalities to make that investment. So that's where my interest in broadband Internet on a municipal level started. From there, I left in late 2016 to go work for our state Senator Eric Lesser, a Harvard Grad and a alum of the Obama administration, and I've been working for him since January 2017. Shortly after getting hired for him, I decided to take another plunge at electoral politics, and I decided to run for city council and was elected in November of that year. You know, fun story for me is, as much as I liked municipal broadband, I thought it would be a little bit of a too technical thing to try to talk about on the campaign trail. But as I knocked doors and met with voters, it increasingly became aware to me that this is something that was really important to them because they were incredibly frustrated with the Internet services and cable services in our area, which were pretty much confined to either DSL service from Verizon or cable service through Charter Spectrum, both which are not very well received in the community. And being a community that has a electric utility that is incredibly successful and well received, that became very clear to me that that was an issue that we should push and work on. And [I'm] continuing to work on it to today.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you say in an op ed that you wrote when running, is something that really resonated with me. You wrote, "So often in government, we look for reasons not to do something. We say it's too costly, or it's too much work. We hardly ever talk about why we should do something. Now is the time for us to make this investment in our city, so we can create jobs and build on our history of innovation by shepherding in a new modern economy that works for everyone." Now I have to say that, you know, pushing for a municipal utility is a real breath of fresh air in that what I often hear from city council members is, "Well, maybe we could do a partnership or something, but we don't want to take on risk." And so tell me, why do you think Chicopee is well poised to succeed with a municipal utility approach.

Joel McAuliffe: I appreciate you bringing that quote forth. I mean, I still feel very passionately about heading in that direction and everything that I said at that time because, you know, as an old industrial community, we have lost so much industry, so many jobs because the economy is changing. You know, in our area, we're one of the few communities that have that municipal electric utility, which allows us to spin off of that to create that broadband Internet utility. And additionally, because of some of the work that's been done in our community over the years, we already have a fiber backbone in place that's been used in the city over the last few years. So part of that project, what's needed to do a fiber build out to the home, is already done. Yes, I do hear those concerns from other people about the costs associated, the risk associated. The general manager of our electric light utility is advocating for a much more conservative build out than I am, highlighting the risk to their electric side of things. That is a valid point, but I'd like to hit back on the fact that, you know, what is the cost of not doing this? If we don't make this investment now, if we don't be at the forefront of this technology at this utility, what opportunities are we losing? You know, I traveled last month to Burlington, Vermont. I'm sure you guys know a little bit of the story about Burlington, Vermont. They were one of the first utilities to be created in the early 2000s, creating a Fiber-to-the-Home utility, and I met with their general manager. They were one of the number one cited failures of the municipal broadband generation. They were largely a failure because, as it was explained to me, they were created specifically because the people in Burlington did not like Comcast, and they wanted to find a way to stick it to them. But as time went on, as they struggled with the loans that they took out to do this, they realized that they didn't have a target approach and a reason or a issue that they were trying to solve with their creation of their utility. They didn't have a reason to do this outside of wanting to compete with Comcast. Fast forward a few years, they brought in a gentleman to try to revise their model, their business model. They changed their outlook. They figured out, you know, the business side of things — that they could attract businesses to Burlington, they could offer service at a lower price, they could offer better services to their residents. And they have become much more focused on all the things that we talk about, which is using it to create economic development, which is using it to save our residents money, which is using it to give them an opportunity to have that better service. And now, they are thriving. They are expanding to communities across Vermont, not just in Burlington, and they're a very successful utility. And I often point to folks that say that there are some failures in this area and say, yes there are, but those are really a confined to the first few years of the phenomenon. Lately you've seen very little failure in this area because we sort of have an idea how to do it and do it the right way. But you know, the communities that do this need to have people who think about this on a thoughtful level. You can't just throw all your eggs in a basket, create an utility, and expect it to be successful. There's multiple components associated with it. So that's what I'm trying to do. That's what we're trying to do in Chicopee, and it's been well received — at least from the residents. It's been a little bit more difficult on the governmental level, but the residents feel very passionately about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm not surprised to hear you say that. That's actually pretty common in my experience in that the local elected officials are often much more timid than the constituents.

Joel McAuliffe: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to note that with Burlington, we have done an interview with, I believe, Stephen Barraclough, who I think is still managing it.

Joel McAuliffe: Yep.

Christopher Mitchell: And there were a number of factors. I mean, with Burlington, what you said is true, and those are important lessons for anyone building a network like this. In Burlington's case, one of the biggest problems though was I think one of the mayors basically lied about its performance and hid when it was struggling, and that led to loss after loss that nobody even really knew about. And so it's a reminder of the need for city council members to do their oversight job and things like that. So I just want to put that out there for people, to make sure that they're hearing that part of it as well. But what I really want to talk about is a little bit more about what you heard in running because, you know, you beat an incumbent that had been there for 10 years. You beat him significantly, that incumbent — I don't know if it was a him or her actually. And I'm curious, do you attribute that to your message on municipal broadband? Was it a combination of factors? What do you think drove that?

Joel McAuliffe: Well, I think with any sort of election there's varying factors, but municipal broadband, I think, was the center issue. You know, like most communities, as costs go up in different sorts of areas, things like trash and other sorts of services that municipalities offer, it seems today that the resident, the constituent is getting less and less in terms of services — less bang for their buck. So as they receive less and continue to pay more, we have to think about ways how to replace some of those services, enhance some of the things that they get, when they're losing some of the other services. And I thought this was just such a shining example as a way to do that. We're heading towards an area where people want to find a way to cut the cord with their cable companies, with their phone companies, and the only way you can do that is if you have reliable Internet that is able to handle the type of bandwidth that's necessary for them to do that. So on a much more basic level, to your average Joe, it's how can we save them money, and the only way you're really going to be able to save them money is if you find a way for them to lower their monthly costs by providing a service that allows them to do that. And that was a calculation that I made — that the way that they're able to cut the cord is to have that reliable service, to have uninterrupted service by offering the high speed broadband. And they were very receptive to that and they're very excited about that because they're looking for something out of their government. And one of the things that we continue to hear from my colleagues in elected government is concerns over the price. Now, we did a feasibility study in 2015 that basically analyzed the entire system that we had already, which was that fiber backbone that was part of the electric utility that already existed, and evaluated the economic climate in western Massachusetts [and] evaluated the interest in the residents in having such a utility. And it was pretty unanimous that, you know, this would be a huge success in Chicopee. It projected what the take rate would be, the interest in the consumer in becoming a part of the utility, a subscriber in the utility. It evaluated the economic climate in western Massachusetts to show that if Chicopee were to create this utility, it would a cement ourselves as a leader in the 21st century economy allow us to compete for tech companies and jobs that don't already exist. You know, for example, we look at Boston and Cambridge as a thriving tech industry, thriving in other industries as well, but a huge success in tech and innovation. But the cost of doing business, the cost of living in Boston and Cambridge and surrounding areas is so expensive, it's driving people out. I hear everyday of people who travel from Chicopee and from western Massachusetts out to Boston for work, and they find it difficult to do that. What I view happening — because no other municipality has this sort of technology, has this sort of utility, what we would be able to do if we build it out the way I'm advocating for would be to attract some of those companies to western Massachusetts where our cost of living, our costs of doing business is so much less than it is there. So it'll allow us to compete in this 21st century economy. It's a goal. And I keep returning to that phrase is "What is the cost of not doing this?" Because if we do not and we miss this opportunity, we miss this chance in time, we'll be [relegated] to falling behind everybody else, and we will not have found a way to replace the success we had during the industrial revolution when we were a player in terms of industry. So I think it's a huge opportunity to cement our future, to make our stake about where we're going to go, and I think it's largely important that we make an investment — a significant investment — to get that done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, there is a context here as well, and that's that Westfield, Otis are already moving ahead with a fiber project. Others in western Mass. — I mean, you're looking at 20 or 30 towns that may soon have Fiber-to-the-Home to the majority of the area. You know, you're right next to Holyoke, which I believe actually even serves some of the places in Chicopee, some of the businesses, with their municipal utility. And so I have to think that you're feeling some pressure, that to the extent there is going to be investment in western Mass., if Chicopee doesn't have the infrastructure of the day, you're definitely going to be missing out on it.

Joel McAuliffe: Well certainly, and we just saw within the last week, South Hadley, which is a community that borders Chicopee hired away our project manager that was spearheading this effort in Chicopee to go work for them so that they could look at expanding. The difference between what those communities are doing is they're doing a much more conservative, slow build out. I'm advocating for making a significant investment in building this out much faster, and building out to every home. Those other communities have done — like Westfield, which has been successful — have done "Fiberhoods," have slowly built it out. I want to build fiber to every home and every business to make it accessible because I don't necessarily believe the "offer it and they will come" approach, which is currently what Chicopee is discussing doing. Getting people to sign up for a service that doesn't exist doesn't seem all that successful to me. So you have to be real for that interest to exist for people. They have to have that opportunity to make that switch, to realize that service before you realize all the success that comes with it. But yeah, we definitely feel the pressure. Things that have been going on in Westfield, things that have been going on in Holyoke are reasons that we need to cement ourselves as a main competitor, and we need to be leaders in this effort and not followers.

Christopher Mitchell: And I certainly wouldn't — I should've mentioned Leverett as well. I just want to give them a plug because they were quite sharp in their project

Joel McAuliffe: With regards to those communities, they are rural communities that had been without any sort of broadband at all, so them being able to get that is large in part because of a statewide effort to complete what they call that last mile to connect those communities that haven't had any sort of broadband. So they're going from zero to hero in some sense, and it's exciting for those communities, but it increases our need to be more competitive and ahead of the curve.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that was hard to follow from afar was the dynamic that I want you to describe to me because, you know, looking at the newspapers as it was happening, it seemed like some months ago, Chicopee basically decided either to make a decision later or to make a very gradual approach. And then you started a petition, and then all of a sudden it seemed like city council got more aggressive. What happened there?

Joel McAuliffe: Since I've come into office, I used whatever tools possible to keep this issue at the forefront and to not let it go away, so I think that has played a large part in that. It's continuously been discussed on the council. I brought resolutions forward to have the council take a stand. Of course, we can't generate funding, but we can certainly drive the public discourse. And the public has been very supportive and very adamant with their elected officials that this is something that they want to get done. The main difficulty that we face, and I'm sure many other communities face this, is a basic understanding from those in elected government of what this means. You know, I've heard it uttered in these meetings that I've been a part of and these discussions, that DSL is just fine. Everybody who wants Internet, has it. I don't understand why we need to build something that we already have. And this a lot of times, I'm sure other communities again face this, is that you have people making decisions on what kind of technological investment your community is going to make with people who don't use the technology, don't understand the technology. I mean, we've had a feasibility study that outlines a lot of this stuff that's been done for a number of years and available to the public, which people in elected government haven't read or don't understand. That really makes things difficult, so that that's the challenge we're facing: how to educate our elected leaders about how important this is. About how this isn't just creating a cheaper service so that you can stream Netflix easier, but how it really unlocks so many different doors and opportunities for your community that are limitless.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's push in on that as we wind down interview. You know, if the result of this, if the result of your pushing ahead aggressively with this was that a national cable or telephone company said, "You know what, we think Chicopee is a great place to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network. We're going to cover every one with the latest technology." Do you think that would solve your problem?

Joel McAuliffe: I don't know. I don't see Google or any sort of company coming to Chicopee and making that investment, but it certainly would be welcomed.

Christopher Mitchell: I know that you care a lot about net neutrality, and that's what I was kind of getting at it. What if it was AT&T or Comcast or Charter — companies that we know have worked hard to try to undermine the net neutrality tradition of the Internet?

Joel McAuliffe: Let's just dovetail off that a little bit. One of the main arguments from my council against progressing forward has been reports that were paid for by Charter and Comcast saying that this kind of area was a failure. One of the main reasons that early on this year I discussed about why we need to move forward with this is that the Trump administration and the FCC were rolling back those net neutrality rules that didn't allow any sort of discrimination to occur. As a municipal utility, we could reject that interference in terms of net neutrality. If AT&T or any other company came in, they're free to do what they choose with these new restrictions — or lack of restrictions. So while I would encourage and welcome any sort of investment in our city, I still think the municipal side is the way to go.

Christopher Mitchell: It's pretty clear in your advocacy and even in the supporters you've had, with Chattanooga's mayor, Andy Berke, encouraging you, that Chattanooga is in some ways an inspiration. You mentioned that toward the beginning, Chattanooga is undoubtedly one of the most successful networks. They also happened to have been —and this is in no way casting disparagement on any specific utility, but Chattanooga's one of the most, best, well run electric utilities in the country from what I can tell. You know, is there a danger in sort of using almost an outlier in terms of success as a measuring rod?

Joel McAuliffe: You're right about that Chattanooga was the first and one of the most successful, if not the most successful one.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, let me jump in because you actually just said something that is a common claim. They were actually not one of the first. They were probably like, you know, 30th or 40th or something like that in terms of the number, although I would say that they certainly have been incredibly successful. So just a quick note in terms of when they built it, they were in the sort of third wave almost

Joel McAuliffe: Certainly on the forefront of the technology compared to where everybody else is.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Joel McAuliffe: But Chattanooga, the reason they were able to do this build out so quickly and so effectively was because they were able to get a stimulus money at the beginning of the Obama administration. So what they did is invested in their smart grid, which included this broadband utility. But, you know, when I went to Burlington, one of the things that stuck with me in speaking with Steven was he said to me, "You have to have a champion in your community to have this be successful."

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.

Joel McAuliffe: That's what Chattanooga had. They had a mayor that was a leader on the issue and understood what this could do for his community. A lot of these communities that are entering this don't have that leader who fully understands what this does for your community, so the difference between us and Chattanooga is we're going to have to make a public investment, whether entirely from our municipal tax base or by bonding or however we do this or whether we receive any sort of state funds. We don't know how that's gonna work out, but what we do know [is] the comparisons in terms of them being a old industrial town that made an investment in itself and was able to change its future I think is very comparable to us. Are we going to see, you know the billion dollar investment, the thousands of jobs? It's not going to be that significant because some of that's already been done. But it is undoubtedly going to attract investment to our city. It is undoubtedly going to lower the costs that our residents have, and it is undoubtedly going to improve their service. And just because we're not the first or one of the first to do this, doesn't mean we won't realize those successes, so I think it's important for us to make the investment. I'm not too concerned at comparing us to Chattanooga because I think we have to learn from their successes, but as I've mentioned with Burlington, we have to learn from other failures as well. So I think that's important, but Chattanooga has done things the right way. They've marketed themselves the right way, and they've grown to offering their services to surrounding communities in a way that I think we need to think about doing, in a way that Burlington's also now doing, because other communities in western Massachusetts don't have the municipal light plant that they can use to expand. So I think it offers a tremendous blueprint, and I think it offers a great path forward for us.

Christopher Mitchell: And I just wanted to jump in to reiterate something you said at the beginning of that, which is key and sometimes has gotten confused in the minds of a lot of people working in this issue. And that's that the stimulus at the beginning of the Obama presidency to help the economy recover, that helped Chattanooga go from a 10 year build out plan to a three year build out plan, but they did have to borrow money still.

Joel McAuliffe: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: And some people have claimed that without that money, Chattanooga couldn't have done what they did, and the accurate piece of that is that that money enabled them to go faster. But I think Chattanooga was poised to have the success because of the right leadership and the right vision, and the timeframe is what changed with the Department of Energy grant.

Joel McAuliffe: Absolutely, and that's the argument that we get here, right? Is that because we have to do this all on our own, we should do it slower. And yeah, it absolutely did help Chattanooga move faster, but what we see here is we've already had the fiber backbone in place in Chicopee. So we do have the base of an infrastructure already, so that puts us a little bit further ahead than any other organization would be starting out.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you, Joel. I really appreciate your leadership on this, your passion for it. It's something that I think local governments really need, is to get that sense of vision back that we talked about with that line from your op ed about looking at the reasons why something should be done rather than focusing too much on the risks. It's important to measure the risks but I think people are scared sometimes, and it's important to make sure that you have a vision you're working toward. So I hope that others will take heart from you just as you've taken heart from Chattanooga and from the Obama campaign and presidency. But thank you so much for coming on the show.

Joel McAuliffe: Thank you. I appreciate you guys having me. And to all your listeners, I hope it's important that they realize that, you know, people who care about their community, when they feel very passionate about an issue, the power is in their hands. So continue to work on the advocacy. I appreciate what your organization does in raising awareness throughout the country and am so grateful for what you guys do and appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. And wish you guys the best.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with councilor Joel McAuliffe from Chicopee, Massachusetts, discussing efforts in his city to develop a municipal fiber optic network. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research; subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 335 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.