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Whip City Fiber’s Next Phase: Connecting Hill Towns in Western Massachusetts — Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 429
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.
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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.
John Leary: We're not here to squeeze the nickel out of everybody. We are here to kind of help, to kind of let municipalities grow on their own and flourish.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 429 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Ry Marcattilio-McCracken with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today on the podcast, Christopher talks with IT Manager John Leary and Customer Experience, Marketing, and Communications Manager Lisa Stowe for Westfield Gas and Electric, the municipal utility for the city of 40,000 in the Southwestern quadrant of Massachusetts. Westfield's municipally owned fiber arm, Whip City Fiber, is doing some wonderful things.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: The group tackles two threads during the course of their discussion. 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 build-out 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.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: The group then digs into Whip City Fiber's next phase of life, bringing municipally-owned gigabit Internet to 20, yes, you heard that right, 20 Western Massachusetts Hill Towns over the next few years. With Whip City's help now, and eventual role as Internet service provider and network operator later, nine are already online, with the rest to follow by the end of next year. The group ends by talking about the future, and what it will take to get to 100% coverage in Westfield. And the utility's commitment to closing the digital divide. Now here's Christopher talking with John and Lisa.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. And today I'm speaking with John Leary, the IT manager for Westfield Gas and Electric. Welcome to the show.
John Leary: Thanks Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Lisa Stowe, the customer experience, marketing, and communications manager for the utility. Welcome to the show, Lisa.
Lisa Stowe: Thank you. Good morning.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I'm very excited to talk to both of you. You probably don't know this, but I've just been fascinated watching from afar. I think this is one of the most exciting and interesting projects in the nation. The way you've tapped into different funding sources, the different models that you're using. And for people who haven't listened to every episode yet, and I know that there's three or four people who have listened to every episode of the show, but four years ago, in episode 205, we interviewed Aaron Bean and Sean Fitzgerald from Whip City Fiber, the name of the fiber utility that you've created. But for people who aren't as familiar, let me ask you first, John, what's a 90 second history of Whip City Fiber.
John Leary: Yeah. Thank you for that. First of all, it's been fascinating to be in the middle of it, not just watching it from the outside. It's truly been just an unbelievable experience to work with such a dedicated group of people to see this project through. Whip City Fiber was born out of a 120 year old utility called Westfield Gas and Electric here in Westfield. Several years ago, we created a hybrid fiber coax ring here in the city. And that's our first foray into the fiber business for the city of Westfield.
John Leary: And the people at the time that were running the Gas and Electric decided that we would like to get into the fiber business. And asked our municipal light board, who governs us, they're elected officials from around the city, if we could get into the fiber business and extend this to each of the homes here in Westfield. Really competition against Comcast, who right now is our competitor here in Westfield. And through many ups and downs, and much trials and errors, and all of the business plans that we had to put together, they gave us our approval. And we moved forward, which was a great day for this utility.
John Leary: You can imagine the downward pressure on electric businesses as a whole. People are conserving energy, which we applaud. But in order for us to stay viable here in the city of Westfield, we had to come up with another source of income. And it turns out that fiber and Internet is that great source of income for us. The bigger utilities, when they're losing money, they have to raise rates. That's their only recourse. We can't do that as a locally owned utility here in the city of Westfield. We have to come up with other alternatives. So Whip City Fiber was born out of that. And we're very, very proud of that.
Christopher Mitchell: Lisa, I'm curious if you want to reflect just a little bit on anything interesting you think people should know about the history.
Lisa Stowe: Well, John does a good job covering that. It is true that we're very fortunate. Our reputation as a municipal gas and electric, the community loves the G&E. They really truly do. They know that we are local. They know that we support them. We keep their rates stable and low. And so it was not a huge leap for us to move into this somewhat unrelated utility, and just have overwhelming support of the folks who live in Westfield. And people who have our service now are hands down really delighted. So we were able to build on that good reputation and make good use of it for this project.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. So if I have the history right, again, kind of maybe speeding over it a little bit, you started with a pilot project. That's roughly the time where we had done our interview. And then expanded that a few times. And then the city invested significantly in an expansion to get you to where you are today at about 70% coverage. And so I'm curious if you want to comment on that process at all. Let me start with you, John.
John Leary: So the important thing to know and understand is that we have to stand on our own as a business here at Westfield Gas and Electric. The fiber business has to sustain itself. We did have to borrow. And we borrowed a significant amount of money through the city. The city gave us approval for us to borrow $15 million in bonds in order to get us off the ground. We borrowed $2 million against our electric business in order to do that pilot project in the beginning in order to prove that we could do it.
John Leary: So we have to sustain ourselves through this business. We can't rely on the gas or the electric business to do so. And that's really our rallying cry in that, as Lisa commented, people very much trust the Gas and Electric here in Westfield. And that's the path that we're following. If they trust us for gas and electric, they're going to trust us for fiber. So we've hired carefully, added to our staff carefully, Key positions so that people that come on know and understand what it means to be an employee of Westfield Gas and Electric. They know and understand what it means to be beholden to the rate payers of Westfield. That's who we work for. And every day when we come to work here, we know and understand that our job is to satisfy the rate payers of Westfield. No matter where we're working, no matter what we're doing, it's for the rate payers of Westfield.
John Leary: We also have this beautiful entrepreneurial attitude where we get to kind of come together as a group of individuals. We have a fiber steering meeting every Monday morning. It's been going on now for over four years. And it's kind of the entrepreneurial attitude at that meeting. What can we do? How can we do it? How can we make changes? How can we get past the various obstacles that pop up, it seems like, on a weekly basis? And really you can feel the entrepreneurial attitude happen. And really that's how we've been successful is that there's no playbook here. We're trying to figure it out on our own. We're trying to grow on our own. And it has been very, very successful.
Christopher Mitchell: Quickly John, I'm curious, is the structure of Whip City, are you integrated into the Gas and Electric? Are you under the same ultimate hierarchy? How does that work?
John Leary: There's one general manager for the Gas and Electric who also manages Whip City Fiber. We're under the municipal light board who manages the Gas and Electric. So those individuals are elected from the community. We're part of the city of Westfield as a department. So yes, we're part of the Westfield Gas and Electric doing business as Whip city Fiber.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. I appreciate that. I think it's really interesting to hear you talking about the entrepreneurial nature. We've identified that as being very important and hard to manage in a utility. I want to come back to Lisa in a second, but John, it looked like you wanted to comment on that entrepreneur question.
John Leary: I would challenge our audience to go out and Google failed municipal fiber projects. Because there's plenty of them. And we've learned from them what not to do. And we're trying very, very hard not to do those things. We can't be everything to everybody right away. Right now, we've only covered 70% of the city of Westfield. We're growing carefully, and we're growing with forethought so that this business remains viable. We will get to 100% of Westfield. But we knew from the beginning, we couldn't be everything to everybody. And that is key to making sure this is a successful business, is that we grow carefully.
Christopher Mitchell: I appreciate that. And I think in the New England area, I'm sure, the Groton, Connecticut experience, the Burlington experience, all of those. I will say that if you Google failed municipal fiber, you will find a lot of false claims as well about projects that have been successful that are called failures by the cable and telephone companies. But Lisa, I want to come back to you with the question, as the person managing the outward face of the utility, I'm really curious how you manage deciding where to expand, how you manage expectations of citizens, and things like that?
Lisa Stowe: Managing the expectations is a daily project truly. Because we don't have service available in the entire community. And that other 30%, boy, I hear from those folks. I'm really excited to tell you, we're actually undertaking, starting last week, we started building out another area in town, which is going to be really happy making for a certain group in Westfield. And it's really nice that we're able to continue doing those expansion pieces. We are committed to that.
Lisa Stowe: We do a lot of social media. We do some direct mail. We certainly find folks who aren't necessarily especially technologically angled. They're not in the right demographic, or they just don't have a computer, or whatever it is. But we definitely reach people with our postcards on top of everything else. Obviously the last seven months have changed a lot of things for a lot of businesses, but we do a lot of community events. So not only sponsoring a run that the Boys and Girls Club does, or being a partner with the ice rink in town. But also, we're doing regular workshops at the library, at our office, at the ice rink. People knew who we were. We had a summer concert series that we were a major sponsor of. And people knew the faces of my team. They knew the customer service team. And they knew when they called for Laura, they could get Laura. And they knew that she was able to give them the most current information.
Christopher Mitchell: But you are trying to decide where to expand, I see the word fiberhood has popped up a lot. Did you have to balance the challenge of the neighborhoods maybe not being located adjacent to each other and things like that? What formula did you eventually use to know where to go?
Lisa Stowe: I can't tell you exactly how the sausage is made, but we did break the town up into, I want to say, 98 fiberhoods, fiber service areas basically. And they're all very discrete parts of the design. And initially, way in the way back, we did an interest campaign where customers were submitting their applications. And we were looking at that percentage of interest in any given area. That was definitely a piece of it. There was a piece of it that was how expensive a particular area was to build. If your area's completely underground, and we knew at the very beginning, we couldn't tackle that with the funding that we had at that time. Now we definitely are in underground areas. And it's just kind of a matter of balancing out those pieces and making the right decision. Kind of having a little bit of a gut of when we're going to be able to increase the interest when we go into the area, as opposed to we build this out and then be dead in the water. And that would be a tougher thing.
Christopher Mitchell: And I'm curious, John or Lisa, can you give us any sense of what the appetite has been? I mean, what kind of take rates are you seeing across the whole network, and especially among the areas that have been live the longest?
John Leary: We see take rates in Westfield, and again, we're up against a competition that's very aggressively marketing for their business as well. We're north of 40, 45% take rate in some neighborhoods. Even stronger than that in others. We have a very good rapport with our customers and trying to market strongly to them. So it's worked very, very well. We haven't talked about the Hilltown business yet. We're expanding throughout 20 Western Mass Hilltowns on a wholesale basis. Take rates up in those towns are plus 70% because they have little to no Internet whatsoever. So it's been a wonderful experience for everybody.
Christopher Mitchell: That's good. And then I would say that, from what I understand of the demographics, you're offering a package at $70 a month. I'm very familiar with Comcast standard approach because I'm one of their customers. And so that's a really good, strong take rate offering. Because some communities, they'll offer a package that will result in high take rates, but low average revenue per user. It looks to me like you guys are making it work on your terms so you don't have to worry too much.
John Leary: I think the wonderful thing about how we offer our service offering is it is what it is. There's no fine print. There's no extra fees. There's nothing other than $70 month for one gigabit of speed. Believe me, I'm very, very proud of our business. And I will talk all day about how proud I am of this business and not degrade any other business. But to read the fine print of other people's business is I think it's a way of treating other people unfairly.
John Leary: And at the end of the day, you have this big number in the newspaper that may be less than our published price, but when your bill comes, it's tremendously more than our published price. And you're locked into a contract. With us, we treat people like people. And we could actually install you one day, and you can call us up literally the next day and say, "I don't want it." And we will try very hard to keep your business, but at the end of the day, we respect your opinion and we treat you as a person. And if you don't want it, you don't have to have it.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, as we talk about the Hilltowns I am very curious. Here again, before we get into them specifically, one of the things I've watched with interest is the challenge of managing, again, customer, citizen expectations, the expectations of residents as you're building out Otis, as you're building out these other towns, and yet Westfield isn't served. Has that been a continuing challenge, or do people more or less get why you're doing that?
Lisa Stowe: Yeah, it is definitely an ongoing challenge. I have regular messages from folks, "What are you doing up in Blandford when you haven't finished Westfield." But I have not met the person yet who, if I call them, if I email them back, and say, "You know what? We know. But the folks in Blandford are going to pay for us to get to you." And it's just going to take the time for those towns to come to fruition and to really start that revenue stream. That's what's going to allow us to hit the 100% in Westfield. And once it's explained that way, and once they understand that those aren't our networks in those towns. And our resources are not building those towns. So it's not like we are paying to build Blandford. Blandford is paying to build them Blandford. We are going to be their ISPNO. And we're going to have a cut of their income as customers. And once a customer understands that they generally can come around. They would love for us to move faster in Westfield. I won't lie. But they understand that that's the reality.
Christopher Mitchell: And John, it looked like you wanted to jump in.
John Leary: Perfect example is this expansion that we're going to be doing here very shortly in Westfield. I mean our original business plan called for us not to make any money for the first five years in this business. And turns out that has not been the case. We're actually going to be expanding sooner than we thought. And why is that? Because we found this business in the Hilltowns that wasn't originally part of our business plan. So we have the money, not only to pay our bills, not only to pay our payroll, not only to keep our head above water, but to expand here in Westfield and keep ourselves whole. That's why we're doing it. Again, we have to grow carefully, we have to grow organically from the inside. But we're using the money that we bring in to grow here in Westfield. And again, this is all owned by the city of Westfield. This isn't a big corporation. This is Westfield Gas and Electric that owns this, our rate payers.
Christopher Mitchell: Massachusetts is a smart state. There's other states in which municipalities are not allowed to offer broadband outside of a territory in which they are an ISP. Now I know that you're doing wholesale in those other areas, but Massachusetts allows the municipal light plants broad leeway in a way that trusts them to get these things right. The state, it seems to me, has really accelerated a lot of these Hilltowns access. And I'm curious if you can just reflect on that briefly.
John Leary: I can't be brief, but I'll be as brief as possible. I'm not holding anything against the state and what has happened in the last, let's just say, decades. But these people in the Hilltowns are the ones that have been thought of the least over the last, let's say, 20 years. And to have, and most especially in the state of Massachusetts, a technology driven state, you'll have people without Internet, to have children that have to go to a local library to latch onto a wireless connection that has 12 over three megabits is just not right.
John Leary: So this to me is personal in that it's just as important as the electrification of America. We have to bring Internet to everybody that wants it, that everybody that can get it, in all corners of Massachusetts and beyond. There's no reason in 2020 that we can't do that. So we've been relying on the state and their funds to help these towns, not Westfield Gas and Electric, just the towns. And the federal government has come through with funds for them as well, which is, I think, the only way you're going to get this done because these towns can't afford on their own to build these types of networks.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me correct you. Because actually I would say the federal government has made the Connect America funds available. It seems to me that you actually then organized, and I'm curious if you want to tell us a little bit about the mechanics of how it happened, but navigating the Connect America Fund II options was not easy. I'm sure. But nonetheless, you were able to secure significant money for that area. And also make sure it didn't go to some fly by night wireless company, perhaps, that might've come in and started cherry picking.
John Leary: The entrepreneurial attitude. Let's see what we can do, how we can do it, how we can get it done for these people. That's what really works. It wasn't just me. It was people that worked there. It was the whole group here. We spent a lot of time in meetings. We spent a lot of time with the people of the city, trying to make sure this is right and we were doing it correctly. We spent a lot of time with state lawyers. We spent a lot of time internally. We spent a lot of time with the towns. So it wasn't just a couple of people in here trying to get it done.
John Leary: Yeah, there's a lot of inner workings when it comes to the federal government and trying to get things done, especially when you don't know what you're doing. And we didn't know what we were doing. Okay? I freely admit that. And we were able to pull it off. We got a federal grant paid over 10 years. We got over $10 million for these 20 towns, which I think is just fantastic. It was a lot of work, no doubt about it. And it's extra money. Well, I say it's extra money. They weren't counting on this money in the beginning to pay for their networks.
John Leary: And as these networks have been built, they found out, as we found out, there's cost over runs, there's things like that that they need to take care of, where this money will get used properly. So it was a joint effort by everybody. I couldn't be more prouder of everybody that's worked on this project. I get to be the mouthpiece. I'm telling you, I tell people I got the coolest job in the world. I really do because I get to speak for all of this. I'm not the one that's doing it. I just get to speak for it, and kind of represented it at some level. We got a lot of good people that are just, they know that this is right, and we're doing a good job for these people. So it's pretty cool.
Christopher Mitchell: So you're working with nine towns currently in which there's some folks that can get access. Next year, it'll be 20. Remarkable. Is there any possibility of you, and let me direct this to you, Lisa, I'm curious, do you hear from folks in, for instance, the eastern part of Columbia County in New York? Do you hear from folks in Northwest Connecticut that aren't too far away, and in theory, you may be able to work with?
Lisa Stowe: I think we've heard from folks in, is there a call from Vermont, John? Yeah. I don't know specifically if somebody from New York necessarily. Certainly from other Hilltowns. I get a weekly email from folks who were saying, even not Hilltowns, "Hey, I live in the West Springfield. Can we get Whip City Fiber here?" I'm like, "Not today." Maybe one day. That would be awesome. But there there's certainly an interest. I think, again, we've created that reputation where people talk. And especially in some of these small towns, people really talk. And so if you have a cousin who lives a town over who can't get it, they're going to hear about how great it is.
Christopher Mitchell: If I'm reading between the lines, what I'm hearing is is that you're not setting any limits for yourself. You're focused on the task at hand.
Lisa Stowe: We are plenty busy at the moment, but I would never say never.
Christopher Mitchell: Sure. One of the things that I'm curious about, because I see the way you wear your passion on a sleeve, John in particular, is the challenge of folks who cannot afford the packages currently. I know Western Mass has a lot of families for whom it may be difficult to get that package, or any of the Comcast packages. I also know that when you're building a network, it is very difficult to figure out how you justify that expense if you're not going to be able to recover the cost. In 10 years, it'll be a different circumstance. But how do you balance those sorts of things right now?
John Leary: We have those discussions a lot. How do we meet the needs of those that maybe can't afford to have this type of connection in their home? And there's no easy answer. How do you remain true to what we've said? And that is we have to pay our bills. We have to make sure this is the proper way of going about and building a network, and yet still meet the needs. And Lisa talked about it earlier. We try really hard here in Westfield to meet the needs of everybody. We really do. We do all sorts of volunteer events. As a matter of fact, I'm working right now with the Boys Club there. They're housing what will be up to 200 kids in remote learning here for the city of Westfield. And they need an expanded network.
John Leary: And I had breakfast with the head of the Boys Club last Friday at the Chamber of Commerce. And he told me about it. And we're going to answer their needs. And it's going to cost us a significant amount of money, but we're going to do it. That's what it means to be a locally owned utility. And that's what we do. But as far as connecting and offering the same connection at a lower rate, we have to, again, remain solvent. At some point we will. But we can't do it today because just of the business process that we are in and trying to make sure that we remain solvent here.
John Leary: I know that there are plenty of people that need this. And I will tell you this. This is the type of people that we are and business that we are, we do know that Comcast offers a $25 solution. And we will tell people that you should go to Comcast. They will offer you some sort of a solution for $25 so that you can get some connectivity. Because we understand the need for it. So that's what it means to be a community anchor institution. That's what it means to kind of help people.
Lisa Stowe: I just wanted to add, and it's not a solution, it's not an in-home solution, but we also have been really committed to creating hotspots across the community. So there is Wi-Fi access at the library, at the ice rink, at the Boys and Girls Club, downtown on the town square, even out at the Technical Academy. So we do give thought to at least providing access somewhere in the community for folks who may not be able to swing 70 bucks a month right now.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. In many ways, I feel like that's the best one can do. And there's hope that the federal government will start a subsidy program that would then allow companies like yours to be able to connect folks without having to break the bank potentially. So we can hope that they'll come through and do more of that part. It's had a mixed record, but it's tried hard on rural connections. And it's time to do more for urban areas to make sure everyone can be connected. The last thing I wanted to ask you, John, is at a recent panel you were given your last word. And you said telehealth, telehealth, telehealth, I believe. So just expand a little bit on that. I mean, obviously we all know about telehealth, that it's important. But how do you see you're doing interacting with that?
John Leary: Bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth. I think it was probably 25 years ago. I attended a conference out in Chicago. And those are the words that this gentleman used. It's going to be all about bandwidth as we move forward into the 21st Century. And he was correct. And now, through bandwidth, we'll get to connect, again, the poorest of the poor to the people with knowledge, no matter where they are, right? So you just don't have to be able to live around Boston. You, out in the middle of wherever, can now have a connection to the people, the finest doctors in the world, in Boston, just by your connection. And that is a game changer, as far as I'm concerned in that you don't have to have the transportation. You don't have to get in the car. You don't have to go anywhere other than your couch or in front of a computer. And you can have a connection into some of the greatest minds in the world.
John Leary: And we're seeing through this whole crisis, people, and I'm so glad of it, and I know people need touch and I know people need interaction face-to-face, and for a doctor or a nurse practitioner, my daughter's a nurse practitioner, and I talk to her about this almost every day, they need interaction face-to-face. And I get that. But this is great that people are accepting telehealth now. And without this crisis, and you can probably count on one hand some of the benefits that we've seen from this crisis, this is one of them. And that is people are accepting telehealth now. And the people that are using it are benefiting from it. Because I talked to my daughter about it all the time. She's on telehealth all the time now as a full-time nurse practitioner.
John Leary: And those people are learning how to use it to their advantage, to see, to know, to understand. Rather than go and sitting in a doctor's office, waiting and then getting in, and all of the things having to happen. So I think the future is a lot brighter for telehealth than it was before this crisis happened. And it's only going to get better, especially with these smart Internet of things devices that are coming out now. I saw the latest edition of the Apple Watch now, you can get EKG readings, you can get obviously pulse and heart rate, and all of that things. I wished I was born maybe 30 years later than I was born to see all of these things. But I'm so happy that I was born when I was to kind of see the beginning of it, and where it's going to be maybe 30 years from now.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, you hear the stories in the media, but a friend of mine's daughter is one of the ones that through the Apple Watch discovered a heart issue. She'd been getting these flags, and it was saying there's a problem, there's a problem. And she was laughing about it being like, "This dumb watch doesn't know what's going on." And her family was like, "Go to a doctor." And she did. And they found that-
John Leary: Isn't that something?
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah.
John Leary: So I think it's only the beginning. And it's the pipe. It's that foundation that we need first, right?
Christopher Mitchell: Lisa, do you want to reflect on that at all?
Lisa Stowe: I think John covered it pretty well.
Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you have any concluding thoughts in terms of things we haven't covered, and why this network is so important for the community.
Lisa Stowe: Well, I think that I would like to touch on is just really celebrating these communities in Western Mass. Westfield, we're fortunate, well we're fortunate or not, we have competition. So we do have service available already. We're coming in with something that's really not just a step above. You're getting a gig to your home on fiber. And in, I don't know, how many years you can have 10 gig to your home. And that's a glorious thing. But for the communities, for the teams in these communities that have been working for years and years... For 15 years, for 12 years, they've watched each other's children grow up for heaven sakes, that they're finally literally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is really exciting.
Lisa Stowe: And for the most part, they're not IT professionals. But when they're done, we have some people who can pull fiber themselves now. So it's very exciting to work with those communities. You just feel like you're seeing this birth every day of a community that we're like, okay, we are ready to start scheduling your customers. And it's really, really satisfying for our team, it's satisfying for them, satisfying for all the communities around them that that's a real possibility now.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you, Lisa. And John, did you have any thoughts you wanted to share in terms of just the importance of the network in general? Why it's been worth all of the hard work you've put into it.
John Leary: Call it hard work. I think it's, again, the easiest thing I've ever done. And it's a great opportunity just to kind of be one of the people that helps change people's lives. So that's the way I look at it.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. But tell me you've never lost sleep on a problem. You're trying to figure out how to...
John Leary: All the time. We're up in the middle of the night, especially when the network goes out. Lisa knows. I know. We're the ones kind of chatting with each other at 3:00 in the morning because we have a problem. What are we going to do? And Lisa, she's great at presenting to the people what we're doing and how we're doing it. If you leave it up to the IT guys, you don't want that to happen.
Lisa Stowe: Nobody wants that to happen.
John Leary: So we've learned a lot from Lisa that's for sure. And again, I think, just our relationship together is just a really a microcosm of the entire team. We got just some fantastic people here in Westfield. The future is bright here for this particular organization and us in general. It really is. So I'm really proud about that.
Christopher Mitchell: That leads me to actually one final question. Which is one of the things I hear from communities that are contemplating this, and aren't sure if they should move forward is they're not sure if they can find the talent. And you haven't had a problem with that.
John Leary: No, no. And of course we have an advantage in that we're already a local utility. So that's a huge advantage for a city or a town, right? We already bill people, they already know us. We're already up on their poles. So that's a huge advantage for us. But that's also an advantage for someone who wants to come to us and ask us about us being their Internet service provider network operator, which those 20 Hilltowns are doing, right? So they get to use our people. Wow. I would hire our people. I know what they're great at.
John Leary: So if I'm a town that wants to get into this type of business and own my own network, I would look for somebody to help me get there that already knows what they're doing. That can help me, that can bill my customers, that has a help desk, that has trucks that they can roll and things like that. And then maybe at some point they can kind of do it on their own. But find somebody that knows what they're doing, how they're doing it so they don't end up in that newspaper article or on the web about failed municipalities. You don't want that. Because it costs a lot of money to get into this. It really does. And you need people that know what they're doing. And that municipality to municipality understanding helps a lot. We're not here to squeeze the nickel out of everybody. We are here to kind of help to, kind of let municipalities grow on their own and flourish as it were. So again, it's a pretty cool job. I got to tell you, man. I just love it.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you so much for taking some time out today to share that with the audience.
John Leary: Yeah. Thanks. I appreciate that.
Christopher Mitchell: Thank you, Lisa.
Lisa Stowe: Thank you.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with John Leary and Lisa Stowe. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.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 and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 429 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.