Towns hear broadband service pitch

  • Aaron Bean of WG&E/Whip City Fiber gives a broadband talk to town officials at Hawlemont Regional School. RECORDER staff/DIANE BRONCACCIO

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/7/2017 11:16:07 PM

CHARLEMONT — Can Westfield Gas & Electric do broadband for the hilltowns the way it has for parts of Westfield?

In 2015, the municipal utility, doing business as Whip City Fiber, offered to build a fiber optic network to a pilot group of about 240 homes and businesses in Westfield. Then recently, the city approved a $15 million bond that will enable Whip City Fiber to expand its “fiber hood” to reach another 12,000 homes — or about 70 percent of the city — over the next two years. (The remaining 30 percent of homes are with Comcast.)

“We are the game-changer here,” John Leary, IT supervisor for WG&E, told at least 40 officials from towns still waiting for broadband access this week.

Westfield Gas & Electric, which also has an MLP (municipal light plant) designation to provide high-speed broadband, has applied both to the state and to the WiredWest collaborative to build and possibly run fiber optic networks for the towns that have been waiting nine years for high-speed internet access.

At the Hawlemont Regional School Monday night, Leary and Operations Manager Aaron Bean said they would like their company to serve as “project manager” to oversee design and the network build-out for towns. They said their company is willing to do the work either on a town-by-town basis or as a regional effort, where the economies of scale would mean lower costs.

“What we’ve proposed is to act as your agent, to get you through design and construction,” said Bean. “If you wanted us to be your ISP (internet service provider), we would want a three- to five-year contract,” he said.

The utility company has applied to both the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and to the WiredWest municipal collaborative to do the fiber optic build-out. They are still waiting to see whether the state agency will approve their application for last-mile build-out.

The MBI has the authority to allocate $40 million in design and construction grants for last-mile build out.

“A cooperative approach and one entity is attractive to us,” said Bean. “There is a cost savings for us to bring a larger number of towns together.”

Bean said the company could oversee the design and build-out, then run the network for towns that want it. “For those who continue on with us, that’s great,” he said. “If you go on your own, that’s fine, too.”

In Westfield, Whip City Fiber is now signing up subscribers in its hometown for 1 gigabit service for about $69.95 per month. Bean said the cost for additional towns would depend on how many miles the build-out would involve, on how many customers, and on the connection costs between homes and the fiber on utility poles.

When asked if the company could “handle another 10,000 customers,” Bean said the two design firms that Whip City works with “are ready to scale up.” He said they have built bigger networks than this.

Once the fiber network is completed, Bean said WG&E could offer Internet Service Provider maintenance and services for a “wholesale” price to towns at about $40 per subscriber. However, towns that wanted to recover its debt service, pole rental fees and other costs might build those into the monthly subscriber fee.

Whip Fiber City is one of six companies to seek a state grant award from MBI for the design and build-out of last-mile broadband. The proposal is still under review, Bean said.

However, several towns, including Charlemont, indicated their support for this proposal at a recent meeting with MBI in Worthington.


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