Interest high in 'Whip City' as broadband partner

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WESTFIELD — The auditorium was frigid, and mood dark, as a forum began in Worthington. But things warmed up fast for representatives of Whip City Fiber, sitting in back with their brochures and chewing gum giveaways.

One after another, rural towns still lacking broadband praised the solution this utility, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric, offers their residents.

"Game changer," the Charlemont delegate said.

"Far and away the best proposal," added a Goshen Select Board member.

"They have a lot going for them and believe in fiber," said Mary Ellen Kennedy, representing New Salem, during a break in the Massachusetts Broadband Institute forum Thursday.

Her town wants to talk to Whip City, as does Becket, Cummington, Plainfield, Rowe and Worthington.

Otis is already on board, working with Whip City to design a fiber-optic network.

Who wasn't feeling the love last week?

Virtually all of the other private companies that filed proposals with the MBI for "last-mile" networks, including Charter, Comcast and Crocker Communications. Their representatives sat at tables that drew few visitors.

Whip City Fiber's appeal, interviews suggest, lies in its relative affordability, embrace of fiber and philosophy of serving ratepayers rather than shareholders.

To better understand the role this utility may play in closing the digital divide in Western Massachusetts, The Eagle visited its operations center in Westfield last Friday.

The paper then tracked down a technician as he hooked up a home to gigabit-speed internet service — the future still out of reach for dozens of towns.

EXPANSION PLAN

The night before, the Westfield City Council, in a 12-0 vote, backed a major expansion for Whip City Fiber within its Hampden County home, allowing the utility to reach a goal envisioned years ago by Daniel J. Howard, its general manager, and Aaron Bean, its operations manager.

In Westfield, people can purchase broadband service from Comcast, the cable giant. But they can also shop local, buying connectivity through the publicly owned utility that's been providing power since 1899, and moving data on fiber-optic cable for 20 years.

Westfield Gas + Electric provides services to 30,000 subscribers, from residences to business and industry.

In its application to the MBI, Whip City says it wants to help any partner town "design, construct and operate a municipal internet network."

That play to the public side of the ledger is drawing praise from leaders in unserved rural towns, especially those who remain interested in the kind of regional approach backed by WiredWest.

"We get the local approach," said Howard, who, like Bean, started work with the utility as an engineer.

Under that approach, Whip City would help towns build and own their broadband systems, rather than have the MBI award grants to private companies to construct networks those private firms would own, and charge customers to use.

Whip City would essentially provide the design and construction help at cost, rather than with a profit motive.

The utility's pitch is far cheaper, an Ashfield broadband official noted at the forum. Potential savings could rewrite the math on the entire broadband equation, he suggested.

In its proposal to the MBI, the company cites the state law that enables one utility, Whip City in this case, to assist another, any of the rural towns that form their own "municipal light plant." Many towns have already taken that step.

"It affords them the ability to maintain control of their own networks," Howard said.

Bean, who started work in Westfield while in college more than two decades ago, said the utility's culture embraces mutual assistance.

"We're trying to walk a mile in their shoes," Bean said of the unserved towns. "Can we fill a need that's out there? We looked at ourselves and said, 'Yeah, we can.'"

Whip City answered the MBI request for proposals, Bean said, because towns had been knocking on its door, looking for help.

"They were coming to us, which started sparking our interest," he said. "The regional approach, as far as simplicity is concerned, is attractive to us."

Bean is riding point on potential ventures with rural towns. At the Worthington meeting last week, wisely sporting a fleece vest in the chilly space, he met with town representatives and answered questions.

FAVORING FIBER

Howard and Bean say Whip City Fiber has the capacity to partner with towns even as it rolls out fiber-optic coverage across Westfield.

They say it would accomplish that by continuing to tap outside contractors for aspects of network construction and by slowly scaling up its customer service department to handle new accounts.

The company has 80 full-time employees in all its divisions, with some part-time help constructing fiber networks. It would likely hire outside contractors to build the rural fiber networks, based on designs fashioned together with partner towns.

Howard said the utility expects to grow and add staff. Separately, Whip City Fiber is negotiating with WiredWest to handle operations for a regional system of town-owned networks. He said the company is prepared to provide customer service under its own name, or that of member towns or WiredWest.

The point isn't to make a profit, the two men said, but to benefit customers, one government entity to another.

At the same time, they note, Westfield ratepayers cannot be assessed costs for service provided in another community. But by increasing the overall number of customers under the Whip City umbrella, all stand to gain, according to Howard.

"We've taken a methodical approach, but we're comfortable with where we are," Howard said. "If you can share costs, and spread them out, there is a true benefit to all."

As its internet business grows, Whip City has upped its commitment to fiber. It's a long-standing one.

The utility installed three interlocking rings of fiber some 20 years ago because it grew tired of paying high fees for telecommunications service. That 60 miles of "backbone" fiber enabled it, in the late 1990s, to provide high-speed internet service to all municipal buildings, including schools, 23 institutions in all.

That kind of service anticipated by more than a decade the "community anchor institution" service provided through the 1,200-mile MB123 network, known as the "middle mile."

Westfield Gas + Electric helped build the middle mile in its city, but doesn't use it.

In 2005, a strategic plan explored how the utility might bring new technological options to customers. That jumped forward in 2013, when the utility ran a blind survey measuring unmet telecommunications needs in its area.

A 2015 pilot program hit all its marks, Howard said, and so did one last year, which expanded the fiber-optic service to roughly 15 percent of the city. That led to the green light the utility won last week.

Bean said Whip City has experimented with levels of data connection, but now firmly believes customers should be offered gigabit speeds. It sells that for $69.95 a month.

Asked to name a key lesson from the past few years, Bean doesn't hesitate: "Just give them a gig."

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 25 megabits per second for download and 3 mbps for upload. By contrast, a gigabit system exceeds that federal standard for download by 40 times. And since the service is "symmetrical," meaning it moves at equal rates up or down, the upload speed is more than 333 times the standard.

That, at least, is the potential. Bean notes that computer equipment used by customers can hit barriers not felt through the fiber connection, which moves data in pulses of light.

The utility's own 20-year-old fiber backbone is going strong, Howard and Bean say. "It has shown that it has little to no limitations," Bean said of fiber.

WAREHOUSE READY

Last week, crews installed new racks in the roughly 100,000-square-foot warehouse at its operations center at 40 Turnpike Industrial Road northwest of the city's downtown. The shelves stand ready to accept inventory fueling fiber projects, in the city or beyond.

Bean took a visitor through the yawning space, pausing at large spools of fiber-optic cable. One held thick black cable containing 288 separate strands of fiber, nearly three and a half miles long. Given the pace of network construction, getting shipments of fiber-optic cable can face delays.

A little after 1 p.m. last Friday, one of the bucket trucks that overnights in the warehouse — this one actually a van — was out connecting a new customer to one gigabit internet.

Scot Stebbins came out of a house on Goose Hollow Road after wiring it for fiber through a temporary conduit laid in an orange plastic tube across a lawn. Inside, speeds had tested out at over 500 mbps over a wifi connection, limited only by the electronics in use in the home.

After more than a decade working with Comcast, Stebbins, a telecommunications equipment technician for Whip City, is sold on the speeds his new employer offers. He said he is looking forward to July, when his "fiberhood" in Westfield is scheduled to join the Whip City advance.

Inside customer homes, Stebbins said he relishes explaining to people how the Whip City service works — and bringing something they want.

"I could talk about it all day. I'm very excited about it," he said.

Customers in Westfield seem to feel the same way.

"We would be overwhelmed with business right now if we had another area ready to release," he said.

"When you consider how saturated homes are now with wifi need — children having to research and submit homework, for regular school days — it's not just a luxury it's a necessity," Stebbins said.

"Folks are looking to stream. It requires more bandwidth. Fiber-optic service offers that," he said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.


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