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Wiring the Future [BusinessWest]
[January 09, 2013]

Wiring the Future [BusinessWest]

(BusinessWest Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) To Matthew Crocker and his team at Crocker Communications, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute couldn't have come along at a better time.

For 50 years, Crocker has grown and thrived by staying atop ever-changing trends in telecommunications and Internet delivery. But the MBI's decision to make Crocker its first customer on the new MassBroadband 123 network will open up doors - tens of thousands of them - across the 413 area code.

"It's a really exciting thing in broadband delivery," said Crocker, the company's vice president. "They're building a state-funded network, installing 1,100-plus miles of fiber in Western Mass.; it's supposed to be completed by July 1 next year." Of the 123 communities impacted - hence the project's name - 101 are in the western part of the state, he added.

Many of the 123 network's beneficiaries are "community anchor institutions," he said - town halls, schools, libraries, police and fire stations, for example. "We applied for the state contract and were awarded service; we're the only local phone company and Internet service provider to be awarded on that contract. So the combination of the state contract and the Massachusetts network allows us to reach a lot of new customers with our services, and we're really excited about that." It's a major step for a company that has navigated the world of the Internet for a quarter-century after first making its name as an answering service and phone company. For this issue's focus on technology, BusinessWest visits Crocker's Springfield office to talk about why MassBroadband 123 is a big deal, and how it fits alongside the firm's other recent innovations.

Humble Beginnings The company that began life as Barrett's Answering Service in 1956 - named after Anna Barrett, who started it to handle calls for doctors - has been in the Crocker family ever since Matthew's grandmother, Marie MacNeil, bought it in 1963. Her daughter, Regis MacNeil, eventually took over the business in 1973 and renamed it Crocker Answering Service - later Crocker Communications - after her married name.

The answering service eventually morphed into a full-fledged dispatch center for area emergency services. It also pioneered the use of mobile phones, long before the advent of cell phones, for customers such as veterinarians, plumbers, physicians, and heating-oil companies.

Originally based in Greenfield, the company eventually began to reach further south, bringing in phone lines from South Deerfield. But the major change that propelled Crocker forward was the Telecommunications Act of 1986, which broke up the AT&T monopoly and allowed private firms to begin competing and owning trunk lines.

In response, Crocker set up a Northampton office in 1987. It switched to a computerized switchboard and also bought blocks of Holyoke telephone numbers that rang into Northampton, opening the answering service to Hampden County as well.

But in the early 1990s, Matthew Crocker saw that the real potential of the company lay in the burgeoning Internet, and he convinced his mother to reinvent the answering service. Using a $50,000 loan from the Small Business Administration, Crocker launched its Internet business from the Northampton office.

"The Internet division started in 1994 in Northampton as a dial-up Internet provider, and that really was the heyday of dial-up Internet," he said. "We started off big; we were really committed to providing high-quality service, and we ended up spending a lot of money - more than our competitors - building bigger circuits to the Internet." That included an early embrace of T1 technology, which gave Crocker an edge in speed on its rivals. "Then, around 1998 or so, Verizon started releasing DSL technology, and we jumped into providing DSL through a hosted product from Verizon. In order to provide DSL, we had to come to Springfield just because the cost of bringing high-bandwidth products into Northampton was too expensive." So in 1999, Crocker built out its 11,000-square-foot data center in the STCC Technology Park and moved its Internet operations there. "By mid-year 2000, we started providing residential and business-level DSL service, and that product grew by leaps and bounds. As one technology - dial-up - was fading away, DSL was growing, and we went through an evolutionary process, getting even bigger and better." But as DSL receded and broadband began to emerge, Crocker was "kind of left out in the cold," he said, because Verizon - which the company relied on to provide a product to sell - was slow to innovate in this area.

So Crocker became a competitive local exchange carrier, "which allowed us to build out our network into the Western Mass. area. We were chosen as a Pioneer Valley Connect carrier of choice to aggregate demand and provide services at a higher speed, so we built our network from Springfield to Northampton to Greenfield." New Frontiers Today, Crocker is a many-faceted entity, its vice president said. "We have customers up and down I-91 who have very high-speed Internet access on the enterprise level, fiber-based products, and that also relied on the Verizon infrastructure and our ability to buy that as a competitive local exchange carrier. So we were looking at diversifying, getting away from pure Internet broadband or delivery." That effort has led to the development of a hosted, managed VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) product. "I like to call it 'voice over my network,'" Crocker said. "A lot of the problems that arise with VoIP arise because the Internet is involved. But we're running it over our private network." It's not an unheard-of concept, he noted. "But it's a bit unique; it doesn't scale like a Vonage, but we're really focused on Western Mass. We're a local company, and we've been local for more than 50 years. We really focus on providing a high-quality product in the Pioneer Valley, up the I-91 corridor. We can service anywhere in the 413 area code." Of course, the MassBroadband 123 project - aided by $45.4 million in stimulus funding in 2010 - will play a significant role. The project will connect close to 1,400 public-safety entities, community colleges, libraries, medical facilities, and town halls, while creating a network that promises to connect 333,500 households and 44,000 businesses in Western and North-Central Mass.

"It puts fiber all over the place, and it's connected here at One Federal St. in Springfield, and that's going to allow us to deliver our services to our customers without relying on Verizon," Crocker said. "It allows us to provide very high-quality, high-speed services to our customers all over our network, which is the entire 413 area code." Communities have been receptive, he added. "For example, Leverett has gone through the process of getting funding to build a fiber to the home network; they have a town bond to build out this network infrastructure, leveraging the Massachusetts Broadband Network. That will allow us to provide our Internet and voice services to Leverett residents, and we're going to completely leapfrog the technology and speeds available in Western Mass. They will have Internet access on par with what you can get anywhere in the world." Crocker said the company also focuses on emerging technology, including cloud-based services and disaster recovery for businesses. "We're a small company, so we can react very, very quickly. We've had customers have disasters of one form or another, and we can get them back up and running very quickly - sometimes it's not even our customer that has a disaster, but we like to go above and beyond the call of duty." Basically, he said, "we allow customers to do what they do best by taking all their Internet and voice issues and outsourcing them, so we manage everything. You no longer have to deal with an aging piece of equipment in the closet somewhere and have your phone system down. It's all software-based, and all kept current, as we do upgrades all the time." Moving Forward Most of the company's 48 employees work in the Greenfield headquarters, but the Springfield center is the hub of future growth; it remains the location where a number of large companies, from Harvard University to several hotel chains, send their backup data, and where other organizations route their networks.

"We're always projecting growth," Crocker said, noting that he's getting ready to hire new salespeople. "And we're constanly innovating, trying to stay a step ahead of technology. It is difficult, in the three or four different business sectors we're in, to keep up to date on all of them, but we've done a good job. We try not to be on the absolute leading edge; we want to make sure what we offer is reliable." Crocker's brother, Jamie, a master electrician, came on board several years ago to help the company with its circuit installations, "and that business has evolved into a full-service contracting company; we do a lot of business and industrial contracting, from repair work to brand-new installations or augmentation of existing systems - some really big stuff, a lot of new construction. Right now, we have four vans, and you'll see our vans all over Western Mass.

"We understand both sides of it," he said. "Some [electrical] contractors come in and don't know the data-networking side of it. We have 30 years of data-networking experience alongside 20 years of electrical experience, and we've had a ton of growth in that. In the past year, we hired three electricians in that division." Crocker has never been a company to loudly trumpet its successes, but that will soon change with the unveiling of a new marketing campaign, set to coincide with the growth potential of the MassBroadband 123 project and other recent developments.

"Over the last 50 years, we've done a lot of stealth marketing, word-of-mouth growth," Matthew said. "We've never really gone into a full-blown marketing campaign. But we're starting that process.

"We have a lot of excess capacity, and we're just trying to capture more growth," he added. "You'll start seeing a lot more Crocker ads. We've grown all this way on our own, so now we're bringing in some professional help to see if we can bring it to the next level." In short, the future is still being written at this family enterprise that has been wiring Western Mass. - in a variety of ways - for the past half-century.

(c) 2012 BusinessWest

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