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Walking north on Main Street in Fitchburg, CEO Tristan Taylor and Director of Engineering Andrew DeChristopher point out a small piece of electronic equipment atop a building with a bike shop on the first floor.
“That’s one of ours,” Taylor said.
Walking to the end of the Upper Common, they point out another device, a bump on the steeple of the First Parish Unitarian church, barely noticeable, like a misplaced architectural feature.
These small boxes are nodes of a downtown network being built by Taylor, DeChristopher, and Principal Network Engineer Nick Madden as the founders of Fitchburg Fiber, an internet service provider (ISP) startup. In the near-term, Taylor and DeChristopher said they will bring lower prices and better service to residents and businesses in the city. What they are shooting for in the long term is to change people’s entire relationship to the internet in Central Massachusetts and beyond.
Access to the internet for most consumers is provided by an ISP, usually a large company like Comcast, Charter Communications, or Verizon. These are considered Tier 3 providers. Tier 3 providers buy access to the internet from wholesalers, called Tier 2 providers, or from Tier 1 providers, such as the owners of major internet infrastructure like undersea cables.
Fitchburg Fiber is a Tier 3 provider like a Comcast or Verizon, just much smaller.
Because of the company’s small size and since it is based in the community it serves, Fitchburg Fiber’s founders said the company can more quickly serve its customers in the case of a problem.
Fitchburg Fiber’s technology makes it more agile and able to install and fix service quickly, they said. Contrary to its name, Fitchburg Fiber has not yet laid any fiber optic cable in the ground. It relies on a network of radio transmitters within sight of each other atop buildings around a centralized downtown, making Downtown Fitchburg a near ideal location for the system because of the dense layout of buildings.
Fitchburg’s Director of Economic Development Mary Jo Bohart said Fitchburg Fiber is a welcome addition to the downtown, which has been the focus of revitalization efforts. Bohart met Taylor originally when she was a panelist at an entrepreneurship incubator that Fitchburg State University hosted in 2018. Taylor studied geographic science and technology at FSU.
“There are so many elements that make a downtown come alive, and one we don’t talk about is telecommunications,” she said.
Fitchburg Fiber offering another option for internet service is attractive to new residents, Bohart said.
Boston developer Rees-Larkin Development, who in July completed a 44-unit apartment development at 10 Main St. in the city’s Moran Square, allowed Fitchburg Fiber to provide access to residents of the building, Taylor said.
Local businesses benefit from Fitchburg Fiber’s offerings as well, said Bohart. Having a less expensive internet option for businesses makes the area more attractive.
The company charges business customers the same as residential customers, about $40 a month for standard service. DeChristopher said most retail businesses don’t have a greater need for bandwidth than residents. They need to run their point of sale systems, accept payments, and maybe provide customers with internet service in the case of a cafe or restaurant. Fitchburg Fiber offers dedicated service for clients with higher bandwidth needs.
One of the company’s newest customers is the Fitchburg Public Market, where The Worcester Regional Food Hub is opening a retail location at 35 Main St. Shon Rainford, the food hub’s director, chose Fitchburg Fiber after meeting Taylor through Meagen Donoghue, the executive director of the Fitchburg Redevelopment Authority.
Fitchburg Fiber’s headquarters is in Putnam Place, a former General Electric plant, which has been redeveloped by the FRA.
While the Fitchburg Public Market is saving money on internet service compared with other options, Rainford said for him it’s more about the local connection,
“I want to give as much business to Fitchburg companies as possible,” said Rainford.
The Fitchburg Public Market will feature prepared food from local entrepreneurs and groceries from Massachusetts farms, so Rainford extended that concept to use locally-sourced internet.
Rainford will provide internet access for the vendors at the market, in addition to a public Wi-Fi for customers.
Fitchburg Fiber will provide free public internet access at two downtown locations hosting public events: Riverfront Park and on Mill Street, a pedestrian way with a public plaza.
Bringing internet access to these spaces will help activate them fully, Bohart said. Getting people outdoors and milling around public spaces is an important part of downtown vitality.
Taylor did not grow up in Fitchburg, but he is a graduate of Fitchburg State University. He chose to live in the city and start a family there. Bohart said he is an example of something the City of Fitchburg government hopes will happen increasingly: graduates of the university staying put and remaining part of the fabric of the city.
While the company's focus is in Fitchburg, Taylor said its current model would work well in other Central Massachusetts cities like Gardner and Worcester, options he and his co-owners are looking into.
Small ISPs like Fitchburg Fiber are often found in rural areas underserved by major providers, Taylor said. He hopes to expand into the rural areas throughout North Central Massachusetts in the future, which would necessitate laying more traditional fiber-optic cable rather than using their transmitting devices.
DeChristopher and Taylor said profits are not the goal of the company. They only want to be able to make a living and aren’t looking to take the company public or seek investors who will cut corners in order to increase the bottom line.
They believe in this era the internet is as necessary as electricity or other utilities. This was driven home for them during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools closed in favor of educating kids at home. Before students in Fitchburg were provided with hotspots, Parents without adequate internet access had to bring their children to places where they could pick up public Wi-Fi rather than learn from the comfort of home.
The co-founders’ long-term vision is to make the company into a co-op, allowing customers to own their own internet access. They hope to grow the network regionally, but envision linking up with other like-minded small ISPs to increase ownership of one’s internet connection nationwide.
For now, the company is growing its network locally, with help from its network of Fitchburg State University, City officials, and business owners.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mary Jo Bohart met Taylor when he was in Fitchburg State University's game design program. Taylor was a Geographic Science and Technology major and met Bohart at an entrepreneurship incubator FSU hosted in Spring of 2019.The correct information is now reflected in the article. Also, a graphic in the article indicated that Snelling Staffing was located at 331 Mill St. The correct address is 331 Main St.