South Hadley Utility’s Fiber Business Expands Rapidly


A new gig

Sean Fitzgerald, Managing Director of SHELD

“Ahead of schedule and under budget.”

These are the words any business owner or board of directors would love to hear regarding a specific project or business. They are not often heard, of course, and they are heard even less often, if at all, in these times of soaring inflation, supply chain issues and labor crisis. .

But that phrase can certainly apply to the ongoing work of the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) to provide commercial and residential customers in that community with fiber internet service, a project that had the added challenge of being launched a few months only before the pandemic. arrived at the western mass.

“In our last financial report to the board, we were under budget and ahead of schedule,” said Sean Fitzgerald, chief executive of SHELD, noting that approximately 75% of the city ​​now has fiber service, with the rest to be built by July 2024.

The fiber program, which was known as Fibersonic, was rebranded as Fiberspring to avoid potential issues with another internet provider using “sonic” in its name, Fitzgerald said (more on that new name later). It now has more than 1,600 customers, including residents, businesses, municipal entities, public schools and the majority of city departments, and to say that the initiative has succeeded and is turning heads would be a euphemism.

Indeed, the early success of South Hadley led to new agreements to provide internet service to the nearby towns of Leverett and Shutesbury, and to inquiries and preliminary discussions with other communities, Fitzgerald said, adding that the SHELD board must now decide how entrepreneurial they want to be with this product.

Indeed, the Fibersonic program, similar in many ways to a fiber initiative launched by Westfield Gas & Electric – of which Fitzgerald was a part – was started with the simple goal of providing better and more reliable service to residents and businesses in South Hadley. But its model of success, new contracts with Leverett and Shutesbury, and the potential to add more small towns and even larger communities (there have been talks with Easthampton) have the potential to turn this into a new center dynamic profit for SHELD.

“Clients broadcast more; they go to Best Buy, they buy a TV that’s all streaming. And with the Internet of Things, with everything from doorbells to Internet-connected vacuum cleaners, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance. »

“Originally, the vision of the board was not to expand; it was about improving the quality of life for people in South Hadley – that was the original plan,” Fitzgerald said. “But in doing so, other cities realized we were an option; we did it very well, and we did it at what I would call the gold standard level, so these expansion opportunities fell in our lap.

SHELD has scheduled a strategic planning event for October, where discussions will take place on where the utility can go from here with its fiber effort and whether further expansion should be pursued.

“That’s a point of discussion that the council and I will need to have – how aggressive should we be as a municipal lighting factory in pursuing fiber expansion?” he said, noting that with scale, the utility can ultimately reduce the cost of the service it provides. “And these are questions that we don’t yet have complete answers to.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest spoke with Fitzgerald about what is now officially known as Fiberspring (recently detailed trucks with the brand can be seen on the roads), and what the next chapters of this intriguing story.

A new gig

‘Big gig.’ ‘Galaxy Fiber.’ ‘Gazoo.’

Yes, Gazoo, the alien character from the old Flintstones cartoon.

These are just a few of the dozens of names Fitzgerald and his team at SHELD considered when rebranding Fibersonic in conjunction with Darby O’Brien Advertising, the South Hadley-based company that has developed a strong reputation to help businesses and nonprofits with such efforts.

As they spoke about the process, Fitzgerald and O’Brien said potential new names would be thrown out, with their merits and flaws weighed, before most of them were tossed out because they had been completely or partially deposited by someone. other. Such is the growth of this sector of the economy, where the word “fiber” has been associated with almost every name imaginable.

one of the utility trucks with the new Fiberspring brand

General Manager Sean Fitzgerald shows off one of the utility trucks with the new brand, Fiberspring.

Oddly enough, and O’Brien and Fitzgerald thought that was weird, and that’s why they made sure Fiberspring wasn’t trademarked. It’s the colorful brand name – literally and figuratively – seen now or soon on trucks, business cards, letterhead and everything in between.

Whatever its name, South Hadley’s new telecommunications company has become an intriguing success story, beginning with Fitzgerald being hired by SHELD in 2017 with plans to launch a business division to bring fiber to the home. As noted, Fitzgerald worked for Westfield G&E and developed the commercial side of that city utility’s Whip City Fiber project.

What eventually emerged in South Hadley was a $17.4 million initiative, Fitzgerald said, with about $15 million earmarked for fiber construction, with the remaining $2.4 million in funding needed to Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI. It was funded primarily by a $12 million bond guaranteed by the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. at a favorable rate of 2.7%.

As he assembled a team to take this new business division, named Fibersonic, off the drawing board and make it a reality, Fitzgerald was inspired by the successful Whip City model in many ways.

These include everything from ordering materials well in advance – a strategy that has paid off in times of supply chain issues and soaring prices – to the concept of “fiberhoods” – bringing fiber to a neighborhood-by-neighbourhood community.

As he pointed to a map of the town on a large screen in the SHELD conference room, Fitzgerald noted that there were now many fiber hoods in South Hadley, with those currently without fiber due for completion by 2024 .

As neighborhoods go fiber, the “take rate,” as it’s called, a statistic that tracks the number of households that sign up for the service, is around 43%, a good number which is growing as more residents add the high-speed service and word of mouth spreads about its speed and reliability.

And as more and more devices and appliances are driven by the Internet – from lighting to security to thermostats – the demand for fast and reliable service increases.

“Clients broadcast more; they go to Best Buy, they buy a TV that is fully streaming,” he noted. “And with the Internet of Things, with everything from doorbells to Internet-connected vacuum cleaners, people are increasingly concerned about bandwidth and performance.”

As for ordering materials ahead of schedule, that was one of the keys, along with a strong team, an effective construction strategy, and staying on budget and ahead of schedule, Fitzgerald said.

“We proactively ordered our equipment and materials in advance, before we knew COVID was coming,” he explained. “I learned that at Westfield, and it was a great strategy.”

As South Hadley adds more fiber hoods, it becomes clear that SHELD’s fiber service initiative could extend far beyond this city’s borders.

Indeed, just as Whip City Fiber has moved beyond Westfield and into the surrounding hills, Fiberspring is now expanding to other communities.

Shutesbury, northeast of South Hadley, was the first town to contract with the company, and Leverett, which borders Shutesbury, followed soon after. These two communities, which both had existing networks in place, will bring another 3,000 customers into the fold.

After that… Fitzgerald said it was possible to expand the footprint in multiple directions.

“We could go just about anywhere in this region,” he told BusinessWest. “The key is that the truck rolls. If you have to drive a truck to a customer, you need to be able to reach that customer in a reasonable amount of time. If a town in New Hampshire or Maine wanted to hire us, we could, but we would probably have to set up a satellite building there or a small center or hire technicians who live in that area.

“Just as Westfield now serves a number of hills, we can now do the same,” he continued, adding that Fiberspring now competes with Westfield and other suppliers. “These cities chose us for our team and our ability to serve them.

Going forward, Fitzgerald said several factors will determine if, when and how much Fiberspring grows.

“First and foremost, we don’t want to negatively impact the service we provide to South Hadley – these customers are the number one priority,” he explained. “Secondly, we want to make sure we have enough resources to execute any of these contracts properly. And third, does it make sense to our customers? The only reason we do this is to save costs for South Hadley customers and at the same time provide good service to Shutesbury. But at the end of the day, we have to show cost savings for South Hadley customers, who are our landlord, which we will do with these contracts.

Feeling of speed

Summarizing where the telecoms business now known as Fiberspring is, and where it could be in a few years or a decade, Fitzgerald said it was all happening faster than he or the SHELD board expected. ‘planned.

This statement applies to everything from construction in South Hadley – again, this is ahead of schedule – to business expansion into nearby communities.

It’s a good problem to have – if it’s even a problem – and a business story worth watching in the months and years to come.

In other words, this new gig – as in a gig – has vast potential to become a major player in this market.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]


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