Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) started its broadband division WhipCity Fiber and the buildout of their network five years ago. The project started with only serving Westfield, but WG+E is now contracting with other small towns in Massachusetts to assist in building and potentially operating their own fiber networks.
Today, WG+E is slated to help connect 12,400 households in 20 Massachusetts towns over the next 10 years. In order to do this, WG+E and WhipCity Fiber will receive more than $10 million over the next ten years through the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction, which awarded $1.5 billion in subsidies to broadband providers to expand rural connectivity across the nation. The 20 towns that are partnering with WG+E to build fiber networks are: Alford, Ashfield, Blandford, Becket, Charlemont, Chesterfield, Colrain, Cummington, Goshen, Heath, Leyden, New Ashford, New Salem, Otis, Plainfield, Rowe, Shutesbury, Washington, Wendell, and Windsor.
Adapting While Expanding
Westfield has been slowly building out its network, which is owned and operated by WG+E, and it is now roughly 75 percent complete. Lisa Stowe, the communications manager at WG+E, said that they temporarily paused new installations in Westfield due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, she is hopeful that they will begin connecting new customers and resume their buildout of the network this year.
To construct the WhipCity Fiber network, Westfield issued a $15 million bond. The city must pay down that bond and do routine updates to the network as they continue expanding. Stowe explained that they are well on track to having the network fully constructed within their original six year timeline.
WG+E has been adaptable during the ongoing pandemic. In partnership with the state, they have helped install nine free Wi-Fi hotspots in the region with more on the way. Additionally, as a stopgap for not being able to connect new customers, they have been delivering what they call a “teambox” to certain homes to ensure contactless installation. Essentially, it is a weather safe box with a Wi-Fi router and a modem that they install outside the house, which the residents can easily connect to.
Connecting Their Neighbors
The Massachusetts towns partnering with WG+E have also been making progress in the construction of their networks. The town of Alford lit their completed fiber network in March of 2019 and a total of seven other towns (Westfield, Otis, Roe, New Ashford, Plainfield, New Salem, and Washington) now have fiber installed in some neighborhoods.
Westfield was moved to help neighboring towns after having successfully executed their own network. Stowe explained that surrounding towns trust WhipCity Fiber to aid their build out process after seeing their success, and these collaborations also stand to benefit the municipal network.
After completing their fiber network, Alford signed a contract to have WhipCity Fiber be the sole Internet service provider (ISP) on the network. WG+E has not included any provisions in their contracts with other towns that they will be the sole ISP when the network buildout is complete, but Stowe explained that they hope to be considered and she thinks the towns trust them to be an equitable partner.
A Well Oiled Machine
WG+E and WhipCity Fiber have faced minimal challenges in building and connecting new networks in these other towns. “It’s not our first rodeo at this point,” explained Stowe. In the Massachusetts hilltowns that they have contracted with, they face no real competition for broadband service, which is a different situation than in Westfield where Comcast is their main competitor.
Stowe explained that in the communities WG+E is partnering with, “The minute they see a bucket truck in town, my customer service team gets slammed with phone calls because residents are so excited.” The take rates in these smaller towns have been great, Stowe reported, and WG+E is on track to eventually connect everyone to the new fiber networks.
To learn more about the origins of WhipCity Fiber, listen to episode 205 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
Image of "Entering Washington" sign by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) Unported license.