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Ahead of the Curve

Holyoke Gas & Electric Expands Its Fiber-optic Internet Service Once Again
Calvin Ellis, left, and Tim Haas say business customers appreciate the high Internet speed and network security of fiber-optic technology.

Calvin Ellis, left, and Tim Haas say business customers appreciate the high Internet speed and network security of fiber-optic technology.

Richard Carnall sees a bright future in fiber optics — and a municipal utility ahead of its time.

Specifically, he sees the fiber-optic Internet network built and maintained by Holyoke Gas & Electric as the model of the future — even though it was first installed in 1997, when the Web was still in its relative infancy.

“All communications will eventually be fiber optics,” said Carnall, a sales rep for HG&E.

“We just happened to be here a little earlier,” added Tim Haas, the utility’s senior telecommunications engineer.

Over the past 12 years, HG&E has expanded its fiber-optic Internet and business-networking service to schools, municipal offices, and companies throughout Holyoke, as well as expanding into Chicopee and downtown Springfield, including its latest site, at 1441 Main Street, also known as the TD Banknorth building.

Calvin Ellis, marketing coordinator at Holyoke Gas & Electric, noted that many municipal utility companies across the country have gradually gotten into the Internet business, but in 1997, such cities could be counted on one hand.

“This was before everyone realized they needed the Internet to do business and to connect multiple sites together,” he continued, noting that industries from banking to health care make this a matter of routine today — and need to do it securely, and at high speeds.

“Over time, customers began asking about it,” he said. “And as the Internet has become an important part of business, you’ll find multiple utilities around the country also getting into this business.”

Full Speed Ahead

Fiber-optic Internet, Ellis explained, utilizes thin strands of glass over which lasers are flashed at high speeds. Such an infrastructure, as opposed to one run over phone or cable lines, allows limitless bandwidth with no disturbances due to moisture or electrical interference, as well as easy scalability. “The customer calls us with his needs, and we can change his line in as little as 48 hours.”

“That’s not something you can do in a traditional telecommunications environment,” Carnall added.

A fiber-optic connection, the utility asserts, is the best form of Internet service available, in that it is more secure than a cable-modem connection, more reliable than DSL, and less expensive than a T1 line. Even its lowest-priced fiber-optic service, it claims, boasts upload speeds that are over 10 times faster than a cable modem.

If, as Carnall predicted, fiber-optic becomes the dominant Web medium of the future, Holyoke Gas & Electric can take some pride in its foresight more than a decade ago.

“That was the infancy of the Internet,” Ellis said. “Originally, we provided services to the city and schools, and then it grew to include businesses on the path.”

In the years that followed, the utility expanded the fiber-optic service to tenants in two high-rises — Tower Square and Monarch Place — in downtown Springfield, and two years ago it struck a deal with Chicopee Electric Light to run fiber-optic service in that neighboring city as well. Late last year, the Springfield service area expanded to include tenants in the TD Banknorth building.

Yet, Ellis said there are no plans in the works to expand HG&E’s Internet offerings to residences.

“It’s something we have looked at and continue to do so, but expanding the business model makes sense now,” Ellis said.

“We’re focused on the footprint we have at the moment, and within that, we’ve greatly expanded our equipment and capacity,” he added, noting that the company offers speeds up to 1 gigabyte per second.

“We can connect multiple business sites together at faster speeds. We have the technology to allow them to speak faster to each other.”

That’s important, Carnall said, because of the way businesses are increasingly connected digitally these days. “The Internet links organizations together,” he said. “A hospital will have separate medical centers, and a bank has multiple branches, of course.”

“There’s nothing else at this speed to connect those sites. We connect at ethernet speeds,” Ellis said, referencing the term for a computer network that connects workstations within a single physical site. “We can get these buildings to communicate like they’re one complex; there’s really no one else that can do this.”

The security of the network is also crucial, Haas noted, referencing the sensitive financial information that bank branches share, as well as medical information that is now governed by strict federal privacy laws. “These compliance issues are a major factor these days.”

Indeed, the network has a redundant design which guards against interruptions, and it has also passed several quality and confidentiality audits, meeting or exceeding the privacy standards set forth by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Close to Home

But while Holyoke Gas & Electric touts the speed and security of its expanding fiber-optic service, Ellis said, just as important to customers is the location of its headquarters.

“Being locally owned is a plus,” he said. “Our customers know that, if there’s an issue, they can knock on our door, and the problem will be addressed. With a lot of cable and telephone companies, those calls often go overseas. That isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but it’s true.”

“One thing that sets us apart is how we service and support it,” Haas said. “It has a community identity.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]

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