WESTFIELD – The concept of municipal internet is considered somewhat of an alien idea to much of the population which is used to their internet service providers (ISP) being a private company such as Comcast or Verizon.
The City of Westfield has been home to an experiment, of sorts, in which municipal internet has been made available to a majority of the homes in the city. Westfield Gas and Electric (WG&E) has developed its own ISP to give residents a choice for internet service beyond the monopoly of a private ISP.
Whip City Fiber (WCF), as of the beginning of 2020, is available to 70 percent of all homes within the city, although not all of those homes have signed on to become customers. WG&E General Manager Tony Contrino said that about 25 percent of residents have made the switch thus far, and they hope to continue to increase that number in Westfield and beyond.
Contrino said that his focus is to bring in the customers who have the ISP available but who have not yet made the switch.
“There are a lot who have it but have not jumped on board yet,” said Contrino, “Being that it is right on their curb, it is most cost effective to bring those customers online.”
WCF has also been trying to bring municipal internet to the nearby hilltowns, although WG&E is not directly building the WCF system in those towns.
“It’s different in the hilltowns, as each town owns their own network,” said Contrino. “We are not spending money to build their networks but helping out in the process of them building their own.”
He said that WCF is currently working with about 20 towns in Western Massachusetts in various stages of construction for their own ISP, about five of which have active customers already. The 15 other towns are currently starting to construct the necessary infrastructure.
In December, a grant was given by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to WG&E for $10.2 million to bring 1 Gb/per-second broadband internet to the hilltowns. After the grant was announced, Contrino said he hoped to use the additional revenue streams from the hilltown networks to pay down the WCF debt and fund incremental expansion of WFC in Westfield.
One of the benefits of a municipal ISP, according to Contrino, is that control of the system remains local, and is tied directly to the residents and ratepayers.
“We are basically owned by our customers. Through the elected Municipal Light Board (MLB) they provide us direction,” said Contrino, “We are a non-profit. At the end of the day, all the money goes back into our systems, be it our electricity, gas or fiber.”
Contrino said that additional municipalities have approached them about doing similar work to bring their own ISP online, however WCF has delayed any extra work, as Contrino said that they want to ensure they are doing a good job with the existing work first.
One barrier that Contrino sees to switching over to WCF for some people is the streaming service that it provides. The streaming service acts as a replacement of sorts for standard cable TV, allowing for many of the same channels and shows to be available online rather than needing to pay for cable alone.
“Customers can come in and talk to us about steaming and to learn a little more about it,” said Contrino, “We have events at Amelia Park and the Westfield Athenaeum where we give short presentations about streaming where customers can ask questions. We want to try to make it as painless as possible for a new customer.”
The focus right now for WCF is to bring people online in neighborhoods where it is already available. However, Contrino and the MLB have said that they would like to review their finances over the next few months to determine when additional revenues would support further expansion of WCF infrastructure in Westfield.