Wellesley residents love the Recycling and Disposal Facility, their award-winning dump. They also enjoy a great main library with two additional handy branches. The Town’s Municipal Light Plant (MLP) gets electricity back on within hours when neighboring towns wait several days for power. And residents may soon enjoy another Town service that few others have, super-fast internet.
The MLP began a pilot internet service program last March and is getting ready to launch a full service to commercial customers.
The MLP formed an Internet Exploratory Committee in June 2015, and began its pilot program in March of this year, focusing initially on commercial customers only. When asked recently how the pilot program has been going, one participant, Keynectup’s Doug Chrystall, said simply: “Very happy with it.”
MLP Energy Services and Planning Manager Trevor Criswell, who is heading up the internet project, confirmed last week that the MLP is now “evaluating launching a full program over the next few months. Pricing and service levels are among the factors we will be evaluating as we move forward.”
A search for pilot program participants yielded a diverse group of nine organizations, including the Unitarian Universalist Society, The Cat’s Hospital on Route 9, Wellesley-based technology company Keynectup, retailer Pine Straw, Dana Hall School, and several Town departments.
The Unitarian Universalist Society on Washington Street has been a Verizon customer for years but joined the town’s pilot program in hopes of getting faster and more reliable service. “There would be a lot of outages [with Verizon], and just slow, slow, slow speed, especially around lunchtime when a whole lot of other people were probably online,” said Cyra Coady, administrator at UU Wellesley.
The office manager for the Cat’s Hospital said she was told by the existing ISP’s that they couldn’t pull the faster service lines to her location, and of the current service she said that “sometimes it was so slow that we could not even perform the speed test.”
For many businesses, reliable internet access can be essential. Keynectup, a technology company in Wellesley Square, jumped at the opportunity to join the pilot program when Co-Founder Chrystall heard about it at a Wellesley Chamber of Commerce meeting. “We are paying about $150 a month for about 75 (megabits per second) down and upload, we’re only seeing 20 … but we probably need 300 for the work we do,” he said, of the company’s existing service.
MLP’s Criswell says the town program would provide gigabit speeds for uploads and downloads.
“Right now, the fastest internet service, with the exception of a specific business class arrangement with Comcast or Verizon, is 250 megabits, up and down,” said Criswell, “so we’ll be really blowing them out of the water in terms of speed.”
Wellesley first connected up a fiber network ring to serve seven town buildings in 1996, according to Town Annual Reports, and has expanded the network since then. The internet service will tie into that fiber ring to reach pilot participants.
Criswell said the MPL estimated in October that total cost for the pilot would come in at around $151,000, but it has since added two new participants to the pilot program, which will increase the cost.
“All of the companies that we’ve been working with, from the head-end provider… all the way to the point-of-presence provider, all view us, and view all of their customers, as a pay-as-you-grow model,” Criswell said. “So it’s very easy for us to scale up the program for a relatively moderate increase in cost to serve a larger demand.” He said further that the MLP does not expect to be asking the Town for additional funds for the ISP program at the present time.
Town-run ISP’s beyond Wellesley’s
Wellesley is not the only town in Massachusetts building up this essential network. Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society recently studied two town-run internet projects. It issued a report on Holyoke in July 2015, and just released a report in February on the town-run broadband service in Concord. According to those reports, there are 41 MLP’s like Wellesley’s in the State. “Although all (MLP’s) originally owned power plants, most are now distribution utilities, buying electricity on wholesale markets and selling it locally,” said the Holyoke report, and of those 41, ten provide internet services.
To get into the internet business, the Holyoke MLP formed a separate group called HG&E Telecom. According to the Berkman Klein report, “HG&E Telecom has shown steady growth in the face of competition, never incurred debt, and has reaped a 10 percent profit in both 2013 and 2014.” The report said that Holyoke was able to attract a $90 million regional high-speed computing facility called Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, in part because of the fiber service, and that Holyoke has also expanded services to adjacent towns.
When talking about towns expanding their fiber infrastructure, David Talbot, co-author of the Berkman Klein Center reports said, “If it’s done correctly, I don’t think it’s ever bad for any town to be installing basic fiber infrastructure because you need it for so many different things.”
Editor’s note: Whether Wellesley’s fiber infrastructure one day supports consumer as well as commercial internet service remains to be seen. But if the commercial rollout goes smoothly, Wellesley residents might want to make a case for service of their own.